Friday Faves: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

…In which I invite someone bookish to tell us about one of their all-time favourite works of fiction, and why it’s so special to them. This  Friday Fave comes from book marketing guru Kiri Falls:

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Once, I was asked what I’d put on a list of my top ten books. I still remember that moment because I froze; I felt swamped by the sheer number of authors and books that existed, avalanched, dumped by the wave of literature. Despite being a bookworm from when I was old enough to hold a board book the right way up, I was still too young to have accrued the reading hours and the life experience necessary to be able to sort the chaff from the grain.

Now, years later, I am asked to contribute a Friday Fave to this most esteemed blog. Instantly I know which book I will choose. Like a gold nugget left in the pan after everything else has washed away, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is worth its weight in – well, gold.

Although it wouldn’t weigh much. A slim volume (I guess you’d call it a novella) The Uncommon Reader is a triumph of brevity.

The story opens with the Queen (yes, that’s our Queen, Lizzie, monarch of the Commonwealth) stumbling across a travelling library at the back of Buckingham Palace, while chasing her errant corgies. A young, gingery kitchen hand called Norman is an unlikely royal adviser, but as the reader whose recommendations guide the Queen’s reading habits, he is soon brought palace-side and promoted. But as the Queen devotes more and more time to reading, there are rumbles of discontent among her staff and puzzlement from the public and dignitaries alike. Where suitably polite conversation previously sufficed, she now quizzes the French foreign minister on Genet. Where the opening of a swimming pool or planting of a tree previously displayed her pleasantly dutiful attitude, she now asks Joe Bloggs what he is reading or quotes Philip Larkin, before returning as quickly as possible to her own book stashed behind the cushions in the royal motor.

She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds. The duke didn’t like it one bit, of course, but goodness it helped.

As the story progresses, reading, we begin to see, is not simply a pastime. Being a reader is about exercising the muscle of the mind. Being a reader changes one’s perceptions of the world and of people.

What this exceptional piece of writing manages to do is combine an amusing and witty story with a deeply serious and intelligent message. The Queen (a wonderfully drawn character) and the joys and challenges she inevitably finds in the pursuit of reading map a familiar journey. The very same feeling that stopped me in my tracks all those years ago, is perfectly captured.

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…With time came discrimination, but…nobody told her what to read and what not.

I’ve read The Uncommon Reader three times – as somebody who almost never reads a book twice, this is some kind of feat for which I give Alan Bennett credit – and I know I’ll read it again every year or two. The sheer delight I get from it doesn’t diminish.

Should I ever be asked what my favourite book is, I certainly wouldn’t have an answer (who could?) but The Uncommon Reader would be high on a top ten list.

Kiri Falls began her career in publishing with a lifelong love of reading books, followed by gaining an Arts degree from UWA during which she wrote her thesis on short stories in their publishing contexts, and later taking up an internship at Fremantle Press after being awarded an Australia Council OYEA Emerging Arts Professional grant. She is currently the Sales & Marketing Coordinator at UWA Publishing.

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