HARDCOVER; 115 P. TRANS. HEIKKI SALOJÄRVI BASAM BOOKS, 2008/2007 SOURCE: PURCHASED
From one of England’s most celebrated writers, the author of the award-winning The History Boys, a funny and superbly observed novella about the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading.
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 newfound 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.
I found this book at the Helsinki Book Fair last month, lying on a table that was staggering under the weight of all the books. The title, suggesting something bookish, naturally drew me in and after I had read the back cover, I quickly rushed to the counter to buy it. Alan Bennett, a renowned playwright and author extraordinaire, is a huge name on the island called the United Kingdom. My professor at the university has often mentioned him as being in one of the British culture geniuses, and I absolutely loved Beyond the Fringe when I first heard it in a radio clip. Hence, I was surprised to find out that The Uncommon Reader (published in 2007) is, in fact, Bennett’s first book that has been translated into Finnish.
The story is simple enough: The Queen discovers a bookmobile near the castle, takes a quick look inside, and feeling it to be the duty of a Queen, borrows a book. No harm done, right? Yes, one might say that this is perfectly common; only one book quickly leads into another and soon the whole palace is struggling to come into term with the Queen’s new hobby. On the premise it seems a very unlikely story, but Bennett’s wit is dry and his pen is sharp. The book drew me in, and it was surprising to notice how quickly I stopped to think of the main protagonist as a Queen of England, and more as a Reader with a capital R. The book is an ode for reading; a study of how reading is seen in the society; and a commentary on the obstacles that a reader faces. The name of the book itself is clever, a play on the different meanings of common.
I loved this book: it was entertaining and still, in the middle of all the laughter, managed to carry a deeper meaning. I highly recommend this to all fellow readers as well as to those who live with avid readers.
“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its 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.”