One of the best things about being in a book club is that you often find yourself reading a gem that you somehow managed to miss when it was originally published – and even when it was re-published a few years later!
Such was the case with this month’s book, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. To be honest, if pushed for an opinion, I’ve probably always been more pro monarchy than anti, but generally pretty ambivalent. But after last year’s diamond jubilee shindig I’ve definitely been more interested and potentially even feeling a certain fondness toward our Queen. And despite the slightly irreverent nature of his book, I think Mr Bennett probably feels the same.
He imagines a scenario where the Queen discovers a passion for reading. It happens quite by accident when a corgi leads her to the mobile library visiting Buck House and she feels an obligation to borrow a book. That coupled with meeting a kitchen boy with a developing interest in literature, albeit somewhat biased to gay authors, adds up to a story full of humour as well as insight into the impact reading can have on a person – even the reigning British monarch.
There are too many laugh out loud lines and exchanges of dialogue to count, not to mention some wonderful characters. Apart from kitchen boy Norman, who is promoted to a job that mostly involves him reading while sitting on a chair outside the Queen’s room, there’s also Sir Kevin, her private secretary, who is at turns horrified by the impact reading is having on the Queen’s interest in her Royal duties and by her reminders that he’s from New Zealand.
As time goes on, the Queen’s tastes evolve and she reads more and more challenging literature. She also starts to realise that reading is changing how she thinks and feels, as she becomes aware of an interest and empathy for people that she didn’t have before.
At one point it occurs to her that she has developed her reading muscle and I could completely relate to that. Having been an avid reader in younger years, from the classics in school to an Evelyn Waugh phase in my thirties, I went through a time when pulp fiction and chick lit were filling my shelves.
Easy reading is how I described them. Busy life, busy job, just want to switch off with an undemanding book was my excuse. Since starting the book club that’s all changed and now I can’t get past the first page of books I’d have been happy to squeeze into my luggage or pick up at the airport a few years ago. My reading muscle has built up again and I don’t want it to wear thin any time soon.
Saying that I don’t think it matters how thick or thin your reading muscle is for this book. It’s really just a novella at only 121 pages, but they are 121 pages that I’d defy anyone not to thoroughly enjoy.