53 pages 1 hour read

Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


British author Alan Bennett’s 2007 satirical novella The Uncommon Reader, set in modern-day Britain, focuses on the “uncommon reader”—Queen Elizabeth II—who narrates the story as she becomes passionate about 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 council of advisors, her family, and her position as monarch. She begins questioning the systems and people around her, developing more of a mind of her own. In addition, she starts wondering about the ways she has lived her life according to her royal duty.

The Queen is guided throughout the text by two opposing characters: Sir Kevin, who is her advisor, and Norman, a gay man who had been working in the palace kitchens. Sir Kevin frequently critiques and tries to undermine the Queen’s newfound love for reading, as it interferes with her duties and makes his job more difficult. Meanwhile, Norman nurtures the Queen’s literary pursuits, recommending texts and discussing them with her. When Sir Kevin gets Norman to leave the palace to go to university, the Queen’s reading begins to take a turn for the more sincerely academic.

As the Queen begins examining the world around her more critically, she decides to start writing her ideas down. She becomes more determined to produce something in writing that is both analytical and reflective about her life. The conclusion of the book comes when the Queen announces this intention to a large gathering of her advisors for her 80th birthday party. Many of the guests try to protest her ideas, including the prime minister, reminding her that she would need to abdicate the throne if she were to publish her writing. The Queen responds, in the concluding sentence of the novel, that this is precisely her intention.

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.

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By Alan Bennett