My stars seem to be good now, as far as books are concerned. After having read a couple of lovely books in the last month or so, I picked up Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. And it turned out to be another delightful read.
The Uncommon Reader is a novella – the story of Queen Elizabeth discovering a travelling library by chance, and finding books for the first time in her life. She begins to take a liking to reading, and then goes on to become an avid reader. She encounters a boy, Norman, in the travelling library, who is an avid reader himself, and works in the royal kitchen. The Queen makes Norman her literary assistant, and has a grand time sharing confidences about reading and talking about books and writers. This, as well as the Queen’s reading habit, is not taken kindly by the Duke, as well as by the other Cabinet staff, but their attempts to put the Queen off reading keep failing.
The novella traces the journey of the Queen as a reader – how she felt that her life had been wasted on discovering the joys of books quite late in life, how she progressed to reading classic authors, how she started exploring books on her own without relying on Norman’s guidelines, and how she began to discover things about books, life, herself, reading and the world at large as she spent year after year reading. It is about how reading transformed the Queen and she began to see things that she had never seen before.
Being the bookworm that I am, I could wholly relate to the Queen’s insights about reading like, for instance, when she says ‘A book is a device to ignite the imagination.’ or ‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they? … At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak, they tenderise one.’ But, of course.
I totally understand the feeling of chancing upon books quite late in life and loving them – I can so relate to the so-little-time-and-so-much-to-read feeling of the Queen when she says: ‘I think of literature as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but cannot possibly reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.’ And how can I not relate to the Queen’s feeling of being judged because of reading, sometimes being totally misunderstood?
The book opened up a new dimension of thought for me – how even the simplest of things like reading a book for pleasure can become a complication for a person of a high-enough stature, like the Queen. Something akin to Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities being faced by a camera 24×7. I know I’d hate to be there.
It is a witty book, the sarcasm making me laugh out loud at places. And of course, it is thoroughly engaging and a pleasant read throughout. Don’t miss this wonderfully written book, if you haven’t read it already.