The Uncommon Reader Summary

Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader

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The Uncommon Reader Summary

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British author Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader (London Review of Books, 2007), set in modern-day Britain, focuses on the “uncommon reader”—Queen Elizabeth II—who narrates the story as she becomes obsessed with reading after a random encounter with a mobile library. As she becomes more interested in reading than with the duties of the monarchy, her fascination with books has major consequences for her, her household and council of advisors, her family, and her position as monarch. Overwhelmingly acclaimed for its gentle, satirical tone and its celebration of the power of reading, The Uncommon Reader takes its title from the phrase “common reader,” generally described as any person who reads for pleasure, as opposed to a critic. Known for its frequent references to other books and authors that the Queen reads, it was adapted into an audiobook released a few months after its initial publication.

Queen Elizabeth II has lived a life of duty and ceremony, surrounded by privilege and focused on her responsibilities to the British Commonwealth. She has never had much time to indulge any hobbies, including reading beyond the things she needs to read for her role as Monarch. However, one day she stumbles upon a bookmobile outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. When the person running the mobile library notices her, she feels compelled to acknowledge him and check out a book. She reads it and feels compelled to go back to return it personally. While there, another book catches her attention, and she checks it out. This one fascinates her from beginning to end. She soon finds herself making frequent visits, becoming a voracious reader. As she starts making more and more time to read, she’s helped on her journey by Norman, a kitchen boy whom the Queen promotes to page after meeting him at the bookmobile. Norman introduces her to all of his favorite authors and helps her carve out more time in her busy schedule to allow her to catch up on a lifetime of reading.

As the Queen becomes more engaged in reading, she starts eschewing all other past times. Many people in her life, including Prince Phillip, her personal secretary, and the Prime Minister (and even her beloved Corgis) are frustrated by her reading habit, wondering what’s happened to make her change her ways so drastically. These people try to derail her reading habit, including getting rid of books by claiming that they looked suspiciously like bombs, or shipping her books to the wrong address while the Queen is traveling in Canada. The Corgis show their displeasure by tearing up every book they can. Her closest advisors try to talk to her, to convince her that she shouldn’t read for the good of the nation. They make the argument that it’s selfish when she could be focusing on the country, that it isolates her from the public and makes her unavailable, but she’s not swayed by any of these arguments. Although those around her are troubled by her new obsession, her journey through the world of books opens up her perspective in ways she never had when she was sheltered. She starts noticing the smaller things in life, such as the way her maid’s face subtly changes when upset. Far from isolating her, she actually becomes closer to the people around her and more aware of their moods and needs.

The story ends as the Queen gathers her Privy Council to discuss their concerns. However, she has a revelation for them. She’s loved reading and opening her world through books, but she’s no longer satisfied with simply viewing other worlds through books. She wants to create them. She’s decided that she wants to become an author. When she informs the Privy Council of this, they assume she’s going to write her memoirs, which they feel is a proper and acceptable thing for a Queen to do. Instead, she announces that she plans to delve into fiction, writing a challenging and experimental novel. The Privy Council is rarely comfortable with anything challenging or experimental, and they instantly question whether it’s appropriate for a Queen to write a novel. The Queen, however, is not deterred and announces that she has a plan. She’ll write her novel, which will also be her memoir in a way. It’s the novella that the reader just finished.

Alan Bennett is a British playwright, screenwriter, actor, and author. A prolific author, he has won multiple Laurence Olivier Awards, British Academy Awards, Evening Standard Awards, and Tony Awards. He is known as an advocate for education and the British public school system.