- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

Toward the end of “The Uncommon Reader,” Alan Bennett’s vivid imagining of what things might be like if Queen Elizabeth suddenly discovered a passion for reading, the evolved reader-monarch avers:

“‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice chancellor, who concurred.

“‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one.’”

This bit of self-reflection, by no means a usual gambit for the formerly restrained monarch, comes well after Her Majesty has read dozens of books from authors as diverse as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Philip Roth and Jean Genet, to name a few. The conceit offered here by Mr. Bennett, the beloved British author and dramatist (“Beyond the Fringe,” “The Madness of King George,” “The History Boys”) is that a woman of power can find and love the power in books. It is a simple equation and one that yields deep rewards. In what is a surprising and surprisingly touching novella, Mr. Bennett shows us why books matter to the queen, his “uncommon” reader and why they matter so much to the rest of us.

It was not always thus for Her Majesty, but one day after the loud yapping of her corgis lead her to the door of the City of Westminster’s bookmobile, “a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of [Windsor Palace’s] kitchen doors,” she comes to borrow a book, but not before resisting:

“The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. So she gazed around the book-lined van and played for time.”

The first book she borrows is one by Ivy Compton-Burnett, and when she doesn’t find it entirely to her liking she returns the following Wednesday and borrows Nancy Mitford’s “The Pursuit of Love.”

The Pursuit of Love turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she would have thought, were work.”

But the queen’s reading turns out to have its consequences. Soon she is given to checking up on what others are reading, gently calling them to account. And it causes her to look back with regret. “As a child she had met Masefield and Walter de la Mare; nothing much she could have said to them, but she had met T.S. Eliot, too, and there was Priestly and Philip Larkin and even Ted Hughes, to whom she’d taken a bit of a shine but who remained nonplussed in her presence. And it was because she had at that time read so little of what they had written that she could not find anything to say and they, of course, had not said much of interest to her. What a waste.

“She made the mistake of mentioning this to Sir Kevin [her private secretary].

“‘But, ma’am must have been briefed, surely?’

“‘Of course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual, and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting.”

As her reading life grows, the queen’s attention to other things slip, but only a little. “A brooch repeated, say, or a pair of court shoes worn on successive days.” It hardly matters because “while there was no system to her reading” after a year she began to venture out “on the occasional thought of her own.”

By the time the book reaches its hilarious and stunning conclusion, which I won’t reveal here, a reader leaves wishing for more.

A final word on Proust offered by the queen near the book’s denouement is its parting gift.

She says, “‘Now one’s life, though one says it oneself, has, unlike Marcel’s, amounted to a great deal, but like him I feel nevertheless that it needs redeeming by analysis and reflection.’

“‘Analysis?’ said the prime minister.

“‘And reflection,’ said the Queen.”

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