Uncommonly good

I’ve just finished The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. It took only a couple of hours to read, but what a pleasure! The premise is that the Queen, in wrangling her incorrigible corgis, discovers that the local library’s book mobile makes a regular stop by the kitchens at Windsor Palace. Stepping in to apologize for the ruckus, she thinks it only polite to borrow a book.

“She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking volumes she saw a name she remembered. ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr. Hutchings to stamp.

‘What a treat!’ she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.’

‘She’s not a popular author, ma’am.’

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.’

Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn’t necessarily the road to the public’s heart."

And so begins a love affair with books that will change forever her sense of duty and her relations with the politicians, servants and celebrities that people her life.

Bennett is a charming writer and there were many laugh out loud moments. And through it all he confirms what all librarians know: if only people would read, they would be better, smarter, more sensitive and wiser, though not necessarily more content. The Queen begins by turning her focus inward, but more and more finds her perception of things going on around her is sharpened by her reading. This leads to a stunning denouement, about which I will say no more.

Bennett is also the author of The Clothes they Stood Up In and of the screenplay The History Boys, a movie I can heartily recommend. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read.