Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (Read-a-thon review)

Alan Bennett's novella was a terrific choice for my first book of the Read-a-thon. It was a light, humorous read that got me thinking about what it means to be an avid reader and how reading can change lives.

In Bennett's whimsical story, Queen Elizabeth II of England discovers a traveling library visits the palace each week. She initially borrows a book just to be polite, but soon becomes obsessed with reading, throwing the palace staff into a frenzy as her old duties pale in comparison to spending time with books.

Bennett perfectly captures the large and small changes reading can make in a person's life. The queen begins to carry books everywhere with her, becomes habitually late for appointments because of a reluctance to stop reading, talks about books and authors in casual conversation with dignitaries, and gives favorite books to others to read (including the Prime Minister and ordinary subjects). She also experiences the familiar frustration of trying to share the joys of reading with others who are indifferent to the written word.

The queen finds reading enriches her life in ways nothing else can. Her powers of observation grow sharper, she develops a deeper sense of empathy, and she begins to reflect on the meaning and purpose of her own life in new ways.

Those around the queen don't know what to make of her newfound love of books and assume the queen is showing the eccentricities of advanced age. "Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility," Bennett wrote (in one of my favorite lines from the book).

The queen begins to discover her own forgotten voice by writing down her thoughts as she reads. This leads to the novella's surprising conclusion, in which the queen puts aside her royal duties for the larger purpose of making her reflections known.

Bennett accomplished something very difficult with this novella: Writing a profound story that was a quick, pleasurable read. I flew through the pages and never found myself bored or bogged down. My grade: A.

My Read-a-thon stats:

Time spent reading: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Pages read: 120
Books completed: 1

Next book: My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes


C. B. James said...

I think this book should be out in paperback by the time it's my turn to choose the book for my bookclub. It has so many good reviews and sounds like my bookclub would enjoy it.

When you're done reading, come by my blog to sign up for to win a free book of your choice.

Keep on reading!!!

Bart's Bookshelf said...

Just finished this one myself and really enjoyed it, great little book!