An Uncommon Unexpected Read Among the Shelves
The other day as I was filling up my book bag I came across a book I must share: The Uncommon Reader
First off, the title grabbed my attention: The Uncommon Reader. Being a Book Booster I naturally felt inclined, even obligated to inspect it.
The Uncommon Reader is one of those “supposes” about Queen Elizabeth II, much as the movie The Queen supposed her reaction to Princess Diana’s death, TUR supposes the reaction of the Queen once she discovers reading. From the flyleaf:
When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J.R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her new found obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff, and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.
Though I am not familiar with Alan Bennett, the book jacket reviews sang his praises loudly and enough to reel me in, and anyone willing to poke a bit of fun at the monarchy gets a try out.
Another reason I stuck TUR into my bag is it’s size. Thick paperbacks and scrawny print do wear on one after a while. I slated my dishy little find for Saturday afternoon’s nap/read.
Like many Brits, Bennett has a dry sense of humor. I totally spoon up and relish the Brit Wit, partly because its my ancestry, and partly because I tend to love the understated which drifts into the ridiculous. Not Monty Python overboard, more like Terry Jones when he does one of his historical videos.
At first I thought, “Of course the Queen is a reader.” I found out from a review she prefers her dogs and horses to books. Yet, she has met and knighted many an author during her reign. However, this does not necessarily mean she’s read them.
After the Queen mentions what a waste she had not actually read the books of the authors she knighted and therefore could not actually converse with the authors at the ceremony, her secretary replies:
‘But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?’
‘Of course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’
I thought about this and had to agree with her. Often I will skip the book and check out the video. I’ve done much of Dickens this way. Some of you will nod your head in agreement, and others will more than likely berate my laziness (or temerity). I also think those wretched abridged stories I’m faced with teaching in my curriculum are a form of briefing. Two pages of King Arthur is not the same thing as diving into The Once and Future King or relishing Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave series. I doubt the slim, anemic textbook offerings entice students to check out further readings. No, I think these briefings close down their interest instead of opening it up.
Another aspect of the book is the clever play on words. According to Wikipedia:
The title is a play on the phrase “common reader”. This can mean a person who reads for pleasure, as opposed to a critic or scholar. It can also mean a set text, a book that everyone in a group (for example, all students entering a university) are expected to read, so that they can have something in common. A Common Reader is used by Virginia Woolf as the title work of her 1925 essay collection. Plus a triple play – Virginia Woolf’s title came from Dr. Johnson: “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claims to poetical honours.”
In British English, “common” holds levels of connotation. A commoner is anyone other than royalty or nobility. Common can also mean vulgar, as common taste; mean, as common thief; or ordinary, as common folk.
I have to admire any author who can get so much mileage out of a three word title.
The best for last is when the Queen discovers something about reading–it leads to writing.
She found, though, that when she had written something down, even if it was just an entry in her notebook, she was happy as once she would have been happy after dong some reading. And it came to her again that she did not want simply to be a reader. A reader was next door to being a spectator, whereas when she was writing she was doing, and doing was her duty.
Just when the book seems like an overplayed joke, Bennett snips it off with an absolutely brilliant and perfect ending.
It’s hoped you are enticed to look up this delightful little offering.
Wait a minute, I’ve got the sequel to the book. If she next discovers writing she could open up her own WordPress account. Yes, bang on, that’s the ticket–The Uncommon Blogger.