The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

In The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, the Queen discovers the joys of reading. As I read about the Queen’s reading journey, I found many similarities to my own reading journey. The Queen voiced my own thoughts about reading, and I loved relating to her.

But while The Uncommon Reader was a funny, easy read, it had unnecessary crudity, and therefore I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it.

The Queen, a non-reader, follows her dog outside of the Royal Kitchens and onto the local library’s traveling Bookmobile that is parked on the lawns. There, she feels obligated to check out a library book. But to her surprise, she actually enjoys reading it! Thus begins a love affair with the written word. As we watched her progress from reading popular fiction to reading classics new and old, we, the readers, are reminded of our own journeys of how we have made reading a part of our lives.

As the Queen begins to read more, people are shocked that she has time to read; she points out time and again that everyone has time to read if it is made a priority. Granted, in this novella, the Queen fails to learn how to balance her time properly, and that adds to the humor.

I don’t believe anyone doesn’t have time to read. For someone who tells me that, I say: “Take every minute you spend watching TV of any kind and replace that with an audiobook, a book, or a magazine. Add a book to your purse or car and read wherever you go. You have time to read; you choose not to!”

A few memorable quotes:

[Said the Queen], ‘[B]ut briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untied, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’ (page 21-22)

[Said the Queen], ‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.’ (page 29)

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. (page 30)

To begin with, it’s true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarizing what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. (page 47)

There are so many more memorable lines, but you have to read the novella to discover them.

I found myself making a reading journey about ten months ago. While I’ve always been a reader, I started being more critical of what I picked up; reading one book encouraged me to pick up a different, related novel or nonfiction work, and I found myself devouring that as well. I started a blog where I can write about what I’ve learned. I’ve learned to make reading a part of my life, even while caring for my little child. And I love the journey!

Great, Except for One Part

The writing in this novella is fine: it’s a quick, fun read. The plot is very universal, and I kept thinking I could recommend it to book groups everywhere. I could share my copy with my family. It would be a great book for discussion of reading as a process, as a pastime, as a lifestyle.

But then there was some sexually crude dialog between the queen’s assistants.

I know most people won’t care. I suppose some people will find it funny. Most people probably won’t even notice it. But I did notice it, and it ruins this novella for me. Why, oh why, do authors add crude sexual language to an otherwise clean, delightful book? I fail to see how it was integral to the development of the plot. I fail to see the humor.

It means I can’t recommend this book.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett was delightful and easy to read. I could relate to the Queen’s own personal development as a reader. But in the end, “modern fiction” disappointed me again with irrelevant crudity.

I won The Uncommon Reader from Booking Mama. Thank you very much for an entertaining read!

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed The Uncommon Reader on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

For the rest of October, I’ll donate 10 cents to World Food Programme for every (non-spam) comment I receive on any post of Rebecca Reads. See most post on Blog Action Day 2008 here. I’m also donating any proceeds (4%) from my Amazon Store.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Kathy, it is a clever story! I hope you do enjoy reading it.

    Jessica, it was very disappointing. Even if I know people aren’t going to care about the language, I have a hard time saying to them “This is a great book!” because I certainly don’t want people to think I condone such language: I’m disgusted by it.

  2. I tend to be more accepting of certain material in books if I feel that it supports the theme, but when it’s just thrown in there for no apparent reason, it drives me crazy!  Contemporary authors should realize that we really can enjoy a book without sex or profanity.  They are not prerequisites for a fulfilling plot, as sometimes seems to be the general assumption. 
    I’ve ranted a bit, but I have not even read this book.  I plan to though–thanks for the warning.  I will probably enjoy it more having been prepped!

  3. Chain Reader, For me, it really was just one comment in one conversation: really something that was completely unnecessary. I suppose people do talk that way – but not me and not the people I was going to recommend the book to! I wonder sometimes if I’m just the minority in not talking that way? Do men talk that way at work to each other? I guess I really don’t want to know…

    I likewise am accepting if it fits a theme (for example, I have no qualms about recommending Catcher in the Rye,  which I loved as a college Freshman, to most people, although it has waaaaay more sexual innuendo and language than does The Uncommon Reader).

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  5. Perhaps it is because I am a teenager, but I like the fact that the author included a tiny bit of crudity. When I reached that part I happened to be kindof reading on, somewhat bored with it. The comment between the assistants woke me up and made me laugh.

    Also note that I attend a catholic boarding school and it was our required summer reading. That little comment obviously couldn’t have ‘ruined’ the book too much if a school with headmasters as conservative as mine selected it for the entire student body to read.

  6. Hi Jennifer, thanks for visiting.

    I personally thought the crudity unnecessary. For me, it seriously did ruin the playful tone of the book. I also find it very sad that one needs crudity to “wake up” while reading a book, teenager or not. Can’t a book speak for itself? This book, especially, was encouraging us to learn to read that way. And while I can’t speak for your conservative headmasters, I’m fully willing to accept the fact that this means that I’m more conservative when it comes to disgust at crudity. I don’t care who knows that I don’t like crudity.

    I’m sincerely glad you enjoyed reading it. Everyone has different standards when they pick up the book and I stand by the fact that for me, the crudity was horribly disappointing. I found it completely out of tone compared to the rest of the book.

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  8. I just completed this book today-I liked it a lot for what it said about how reading can shape our lives. I agreed about the unnecessary crudeness and saw little point to one really x-rated line toward the end-but all and all a very enjoyable read-I enjoyed your post a lot

      1. yes the remark in question just seemed real out of place-not sure why the author felt it was needed-over all a great read

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