Jan 20, 2009

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

This delightful novella describes how the Queen of England accidentally develops a love for reading. She happens to come across the Westminster travelling library and borrows a book just to be polite. She returns the following week, and winds up hiring her fellow library user Norman, a kitchen boy, as a sort of reading guru. However, as her passion for books increases, she begins to resent the fact that her duties demand her to spend time away from her books. Her advisers become increasingly worried about the Queen’s new obsession, and begin to devise schemes to keep her from reading so much.

The Uncommon Reader really is a book for book lovers. I think most bookworms will identify with this book to some extent. And no, most of us don’t actually neglect our jobs so we can read, but let’s face it, how often do we want to? Plus the story is about so much more than just putting duties aside to spend time with a good book. It’s about all the joys and pleasures of reading, all the discoveries and disappointments, all the feelings it brings out in us, all the thoughts it makes us think.

It’s also about the conflict between art and “real life”, about writing, about living, about doing things. And about politics, education and society at large. Do you ever wonder if reading actually counts as doing something? My own opinion is that reading is very much an active process, but as she progresses in her reading the Queen begins to ask herself that question. This brings her to writing. I know that writing down my thoughts about what I read and discussing books with others are very big parts of what makes reading so rewarding for me.

One thing that surprised me about The Uncommon Reader was how funny it is. I had read reviews that said it was funny, but somehow I didn’t expect it to be quite this funny. It’s funny in a subtle, straight-faced sort of way, but very funny nonetheless.

Judging by the number of other reviews I found, most people seem to already have read The Uncommon Reader. But if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s a very quick read – I got through the whole thing in a little over an hour – but also a very rewarding one. Don’t let the length deceive you. There’s a lot in this little book. And I have a really hard time imagining any book lover not enjoying it. Just look at these wonderful passages:
What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undefering about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.

‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.’
(This last bit made me laugh out loud, but you’ll have to read the book to see why.)
Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books.

And seeing the blue- and pink-jacketed volumes ranged along her desk, the Queen thought they looked almost edible and straight out of a patisserie window.

‘Can there be any great pleasure,’ she confided in her neighbour, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, ‘than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen?’

Other Blog Reviews:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
The Written World
Just Add Books
Page After Page
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Bermudaonion’s Weblog
Reading Adventures
A Striped Armchair
Blogging ‘bout Books
It's All About Books
The Book Zombie
Rebecca Reads
The Bluestocking Society
The Biblio Brat
Care's Online Bookclub
books i done read
Bart's Bookshelf
Books of Mee
Melody's Reading Corner
Fizzy Thoughts
Lost in a Good Story
A Garden Carried in the Pocket
A Fondness for Reading
My Two Blessings
Nothing of Importance
A Book a Week
Tip of the Iceberg

(Please let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It really is a lovely little book :)

  2. I loved this book too! I just hated for it to end. Thanks for the link.

  3. It's a gem of a book. I loved it and wrote about it here.

  4. I'm neglecting my work to read ;)

    I'd really like to read this now - thanks.

  5. I haven't read this yet but I too have seen nothing but good reviews of it and yours is another one. Guess I'll have to look into it one day soon.

  6. I would just love to read this. I keep seeing more and more positive reviews.

  7. sounds great, now I want to read it :)
    I love it when a book can make me laugh.
    great review! I like the quote about books.

  8. I've read about half of those other blog reviews lol. I think this sounds like such a good book but not something on my immediate list so far.

  9. I'm glad you liked it. It is such a great book!

  10. I have just this very moment finished this lovely little book! I read a library copy and found that I wanted to highlight and underline so much, that I will definitely purchase this book for my own personal library.

    Your review was wonderful and summarized my thoughts exactly!

  11. Sounds very good to me, Nymeth! I'll have to add this to my wishlist! I love reading books about books and/or reading! :D

  12. Nymeth, I read this book last year and loved it from beginning to end. Your review said it all. You captured the book's essence and it makes me want to read it again. I found myself laughing out loud at the Queen. In fact, the passages you quoted were some of my favorites!!

    Excellent review :)

  13. Oh, how I loved this book! You've highlighted some of my favourite quotes, too.

  14. I think I need to read this book! The quotes you included definitely back up your statement that "most booklovers will identify with this book to some extent." I'll have to start looking for it at the half price bookstores around my house!

  15. I do want to read this one...another great review. :)

  16. I SO want to read this book! And neglecting jobs for reading? Sometimes I wish (Laura--don't tell!!). I don't know how many times I've said to my coworkers, "Can I please just crawl under my desk and read the rest the day??" I'll definitely have to move this one up on the list.

  17. I just finished this tonight and loved it. So funny. :)

  18. This was such a fantastic book and I'm thrilled to see that you read it!! It really was quite hilarious in parts. I wish it were longer. Talking about neglecting your job...I was dying to go home early tonight so that I could read more of Old Man's War. I'm addicted to it. Sadly, I had to stay :(

  19. I totally agree that this is a book for readers! Glad you enjoyed it too!

  20. Oh you have given me one more book to add to my wishlist. I'll have to search for this one. Great review.

  21. Great review, Nymeth! I almost bought this at the bookstore but don't know why I put it back onto the shelf. Hmmm...

  22. well this has to be one happy author because it's hard to find a review that says anything but good things about this book. Goes to show you that it doesn't have to be huge to be good

  23. I just got this on audio and am looking forward to it! Glad to see that you enjoyed it!

  24. "And seeing the blue- and pink-jacketed volumes ranged along her desk, the Queen thought they looked almost edible and straight out of a patisserie window."...Sorry, but I just burst out laughing when I read this! Those passages about sweet-shop windows seem to get you every time, don't they? Of course, they obviously appeal to me too, as I keep noticing your mention of them. :)

    I was totally sold on this book after Dewey's review...I mean you know it's a winner when she chose to actually keep the book, right? But I think you just made me more anxious than ever to get to it!!! I sure wish you'd quit doing that. (Yeah, okay, not really.)

  25. I think this is the first review I've ever really read of this. It sounds like such a lovely little book. I love the quotes that you posted, and I really want to read this one now.


  26. Mine is http://bkclubcare.wordpress.com/2008/04/08/the-uncommon-reader/ . GoogleBlogger doesn't seem to like my link so I'm typing it out here.

    Thank you Darlin'!

  27. Sigh. I wanted to love this book so much. Maybe my expectations were too high. Can we still be friends?

  28. I am looking forward to reading this one. It sounds so good. I am glad you enjoyed it, Nymeth.

  29. Maree, it sure is :)

    Bermudaonion: I wish it had been longer too!

    BooksPlease: Thanks for the link! I added it now.

    Lenore: We all give in to temptation sometimes ;)

    Dar and Charley: I think you'll both enjoy it.

    Naida: Aren't they great?

    Ladytink: It's actually different from what I normally read too but I was so glad I picked it up.

    Vasilly: It is!

    Molly: I'm so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

    Melody: I do too! I never tire of them.

    Staci, thank you! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it too.

    Memory: Those passages were just great :D

    Laura, I hope you find it!

    Amy, thanks! I hope you enjoy it :)

  30. Trish: lol, I think we all want to crawl under our desks, real or metaphorical, and do nothing but read sometimes :P

    Em, I'm glad to hear you did!

    Chris: I wish it had been longer too! Sorry to heat you were stuck at work :( Old Man's War does sound awesome!

    Marg: I really did :)

    Violet, I hope you manage to find it!

    Alice: Well, next time you'll know what to do :P

    Marineko, I'd really love to hear your thoughts on it. So read it :P

    Deslily: Indeed it does! It's so nice to find a book you read fast but that is still as satisfying as this.

    Joanna, I look forward to comparing notes with you!

    Debi: lol, I knew you noticed :D I added that one just for you :P

    Lauren: If you like those passages then I really think you'll enjoy the rest of the book too :)

    Care: Thank you! Google Reader tends to not find posts that are more than a couple of months old for whatever reason.

    Raych: We definitely can :D I'd still love you even if you had, say, mocked the hell out of Middlesex :P

    Literary Feline: I really did, and I think you will too :)

  31. This is another one of my choices for the Dewey's Books Challenge. I'm really looking forward to it.

  32. I haven't read this yet but it's on my list. It just sounds so fun.
    And I'd love to quit working so I could just stay home and read! ;)

  33. Coming kind of late to the comments here, but I'll leave one nonetheless. I've seen so many reviews of this book, I'll just have to put it on my list now! I didn't realize how much I'd love books about reading until I opened Nick Hornby's compilations. Now I've got a dozen such books on my list, and this one will topple the pile!

  34. I'm working right now, and you can imagine how much I'd like to throw my computer out the window and read instead. LOL I've heard nothing but good things about this one. I can't wait to read it! Great review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  35. Glad you enjoyed this! The last quote you included was my absolute favorite :)

  36. I've been wanting to read this book and now seeing those excerpts you quoted, I must! It sounds delightful and a real bookworm's kinda book you know :)

  37. softdrink: I really hope you enjoy it!

    tanabata: Wouldn't we all :P

    Jeane: It's never late! Nick Hornby opened my eyes to the whole books-about-books universe too.

    Anna: I can imagine indeed, lol.

    Joanne: I really love that one too :)

    Iliana: I know just what you mean. I hope you enjoy it!

  38. :( You missed mine! ;)

    Glad you enjoyed it, it is a gem of a book!

  39. Sorry Bart! *kicks google reader*

  40. sounds delightful. Another for the wishlist!

  41. this is a book I will forever link to Dewey and her recommendation that was absolutely stellar. I have this on the TBR list and I hope to get to it soon.

  42. I consider reading "active" also. I do know people, though, who will rarely allow themselves to read because they think they are doing nothing or wasting time.

    I liked the quote about authors being better met in their books! I have met some very nice authors, but there have been a few that are fantastic writers that I wished I'd not met!

    I added a link to your fantastic review over at my place :o)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.