I was struck immediately by the blurb of this quirky novella by Alan Bennett. The basic premise of this story revolves around Queen Elizabeth II (presumably, since she is never directly mentioned by name in the novel but her context and juxtaposed royal figures proclaim her to be as such) who discovers a mobile library one day while walking her famous brood of Corgis is plunged into the world of reading.
I’m completely unfamiliar with Alan Bennett’s previous works or his literary reputation, so I read this book on a very clean slate without any impressions of the author. I found that this book provided a very interesting portrait of a woman who has lived her life as a monarch, but discovers the somewhat “common” pleasure of reading in her old age. The Queen having picked up a habit of reading is, surprisingly, not welcome to her entourage of personnel. As many of us reading addicts would know, picking up one book so often leads to picking up two others, then three, and then it multiplies exponentially until we are lost in the realm of literature, the sheer number of books that are available for us to read becoming unsurmountable. But yet, we can’t wait to dig our claws into them.
Queen E experiences just such a transformation, one that she has never imagined or thought possible before. An entire life of “duty before oneself” rebels at first at this apparently meaningless activity of reading. It is not a “doing” activity, as Queen E remonstrates to herself. Soon, however, she accepts and embrace her new habit, though it is with some increasing alarm that she realises she is beginning to lose interest in every other activity.
Though I’m pretty sure The Uncommon Reader is a fictitious take on a what-if happening to a real-life personality, it gives the reader a somewhat interesting take on the life and thoughts of Queen E (though how verified they actually are pertaining to her real person, I can’t be sure). At the very least, it’s a solid tribute to the power of reading and how it enables one to exercise empathy and compassion towards people. The whirlpool of reading addiction that Queen E falls into is one that is familiar to countless readers, myself included, and it is a delight to see this reflection of our own lives in one of the most well-known personages of our time, even if the take is fictional in nature.