Postal Reading group
November 2020
Notes on the book The Uncommon reader by Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon reader is a delightful little book. Somewhere between a long short story, or a short novel, this one would be perfectly described by the word novella. I first encountered the book some years ago in another reading group and greatly enjoyed it at the time for its humourous consideration of the question: “What if the Queen were an avid reader?”

The story of the book is simple: the Queen stumbles across a mobile library while in pursuit of her corgis. Clearly intrigued she enters and meets Hutchings the driver, and Norman from the Palace kitchens. She borrows a book out of politeness, but very quickly finds that “one book leads to another”, and soon she is snatching precious moments to read while on her way to official visits, which, ultimately, proves unpopular with her advisors.

Short and easy to read, this is an ideal choice for this group, and, in my opinion, typical of Bennett’s writing. My first introduction to the author’s work was through televised versions of the monologues, and as a result of this I can always hear his voice when reading, for example, his short stories. Likewise the humour in the book is very much in character for Bennett. In many books such humour would, perhaps, be considered to be too obvious, but in this case, and much of his writing, it never seems obtrusive. Rather, the evident humour is manifest in the Queen’s public engagements: a shoe factory in Northampton and gymnastics in Nuneaton (to pick two from the early part of the book). This can only serve to highlight the real nature of Her Majesty’s role.

Of course, while the humour does not detract from the story, it is still possible to question the basic premise of a mobile library serving employees of the Palace, and parked by the dustbins! Even the idea of a mobile library in the area around Buckingham Palace would seem unlikely as they are more typically used in rural areas who have no easy access to dedicated library services. I suspect that this is not meant to be taken seriously, but I must admit that having the queen as a regular user of a public library is a glorious idea. A previous monarch once asked, during the course of an official visit, if they could borrow a book from the Bodlean Library in Oxford. The request was refused because the Bodlean is a national deposit library. Public libraries however, are intended to be a freely available resource for everyone. Having the Queen use one is entirely in keeping with that vision.

Any book featuring reading is always likely to be popular with readers and reading groups alike. This story does a good job of capturing some of the delights of reading and poses broader questions about why we read. The obvious answer is simply for enjoyment or entertainment. This is certainly true in my case as I don’t have a television, and so reading is my only form of ‘passive’ entertainment; books are also portable and need no special equipment, so they can be enjoyed on the daily commute or on holiday. Bennett mentions other reasons for reading: doing so out of duty for example. In reality I don’t know how important this is, and I certainly hope that the members of this group don’t feel a duty to read any of my choices if they are unable to engage with them. Such feelings of obligation are also unhelpful and don’t encourage a long-term reading habit. I often recall the observation that those who study literature at university are put off reading for life!

One possible reason for reading which I hope never features on anyone’s list is that of competition. On p. 71, the fictitious reading Queen wonders if she was “outgrowing ... or rather outreading him [Norman]”. Alan Bennett is rightly quick to point out that this is not to his character’s credit. However, I can imagine some being competitive in their choice of reading material, particularly when it comes to authors which are perceived as being ‘difficult’; Henry James, or James Joyce, perhaps. It has been suggested that this also explains the current trend towards longer novels, as some like to be seen reading substantial works. Throughout the story several authors are mentioned, and this book may prove to be an equally fertile source of suggestions for future reading, although I don’t know if any comments on other authors are based either on Bennett’s experience, or popular opinion, the description of Jane Austen on p. 75 was mildly amusing.

Finally, this is also a book about the role of the monarchy, and the notion of the Queen as an avid reader provides a delightful way of discussing this. While it would be interesting to know if the Queen recognises herself in this, there can be little disagreement that her role is largely a public one: opening buildings, naming ships and so on. Ultimately I can agree that this is a duty rather than a pleasure, although I don’t see reading as detrimental to that role. I must also disagree with the notion that interests excluded people (p. 6). While it is true that the can’t please everyone, having interests at least allows you to find common ground with some.

In conclusion, this is a delightful novella which takes a humourous look at the joys of reading, and the role of the monarchy. The style of writing and the humour mean that this is in the same style as Bennett’s other short stories. While this retains the ability to make you laugh out loud at times, the humour is never obtrusive and generally enhances the story. Any book about reading deserves to be popular in a reading group and this is no exception.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler