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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett

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To purchase The Uncommon Reader

Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Novella
Written: 2007
Length: 118 pages
Availability: The Uncommon Reader - US
The Uncommon Reader - UK
The Uncommon Reader - Canada
The Uncommon Reader - India
La Reine des lectrices - France
Die souveräne Leserin - Deutschland
La sovrana lettrice - Italia
  • The Uncommon Reader was first published, in different form in the London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

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Our Assessment:

A- : charming, good fun, and more than just a trifle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 11/9/2007 Terry Hong
Financial Times B+ 22/9/2007 Christopher Bray
The LA Times . 7/10/2007 Maud Newton
The NY Sun . 28/9/2007 Michael Schulman
The NY Times A 30/10/2007 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/9/2007 Jeremy McCarter
The Spectator A- 1/9/2007 Sam Leith
Sunday Times . 2/9/2007 Lindsay Duguid
The Times A 25/8/2007 Jane Shilling
TLS . 14/9/2007 Jonathan Keates
USA Today . 1/10/2007 Bob Minzesheimer
The Washington Post A 7/10/2007 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Good (if a bit limited) fun, and worthwhile

  From the Reviews:
  • "The staggeringly prodigious Bennett (...) has fun with the writers and books the queen relishes (and doesn't). Avid readers will enjoy his playful erudition in this entertaining reminder as to why we read and write." - Terry Hong, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The Uncommon Reader is a delight. Reading it over a morning and eveningís tube-struck commute, I never stopped smiling -- only a right royal churl could declare himself not amused by Bennettís comic wizardry (.....) His storytelling, though, is rather less magical. (...) But the real problem is that The Uncommon Reader disobeys its own diktats, failing utterly to dramatise the Queenís sentimental education." - Christopher Bray, Financial Times

  • "In its witty, economical satire, The Uncommon Reader recalls the late work of Muriel Spark, whose The Finishing School sent up the business of publishing. Like Spark, Bennett relies on plot twists that strain credulity at every turn, but the book is such a romp, it doesn't matter." - Maud Newton, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)he scenario begins to lose steam well before the novella's 120 pages are through. The book is neither outrageous nor subversive enough to succeed fully as satire, and at the same time lacks the shading of The History Boys, whose central principle -- knowledge for knowledge's sake -- was rendered with a trace of melancholy and moral ambivalence. At times, it falls back on trite endorsements of the written word (.....) Though The Uncommon Reader is dotted with a few sharp-edged moments such as this, it functions mostly as a lighthearted thought experiment." - Michael Schulman, The New York Sun

  • "Mr. Bennettís musings on these matters have produced a delightful little book that unfolds into a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading. (...) In recounting this story of a ruler who becomes a reader, a monarch whoíd rather write than reign, Mr. Bennett has written a captivating fairy tale. Itís a tale thatís as charming as the old Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn movie Roman Holiday, and as keenly observed as Stephen Frearsís award-winning movie The Queen -- a tale that showcases its authorís customary élan and keen but humane wit." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The story of her budding love affair with literature blends the comic and the poignant so smoothly it can only be by Bennett. Itís not his very best work, but it distills his virtues well enough to suggest how such a distinctive style might have arisen. (...) Like most of Bennettís fiction, this is a slender work -- an afternoonís read. Yet even at this length, it feels a trifle thin." - Jeremy McCarter, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is not a book that is particularly interested in telling us what the Queen is like. Fair enough; itís fiction. It is not a book, either, that is particularly interested in imagining plausibly what the Queen might be like. Rather, it vamps round the stock ideas, available to any television sketch show or student revue, of what she is like. (...) Whatís different, then, between The Uncommon Reader and any television sketch show or student revue ? The difference is in the sentences. What distinguishes this, and most of Bennettís work, is not its perceptiveness about the world, or its imaginative achievement, but its droll and exact stylistic commmand. The effect, in this and in much of his work, is to make him the literary equivalent of a brilliant cartoonist." - Sam Leith, The Spectator

  • "The authorís taste for the camp cliché, his surreal exchanges (...) and the easy satire on management jargon (...) are not intended solely to amuse, but nor do they simply bolster a cosy argument about the civilising benefits of libraries, or a jibe at bestsellers. (...) For all its hilarity The Uncommon Reader has a heartfelt tone. It offers a lament on old age, some thoughts on reticence and a backward glance at a life wasted. At times, it even seems to side with Sir Kevinís view that reading is a selfish practice." - Lindsay Duguid, Sunday Times

  • "(A)n exquisitely produced jewel of a book (.....) (I)t would be easy to mistake it for a gentle jeu díesprit; one of those wry, melancholy slivers of observation at which Bennett excels. It isnít though. Beneath the tasteful gilt-and-beige cover seethes a savagely Swiftian indignation against stupidity, Philistinism and arrogance in public places, and a passionate argument for the civilising power of art." - Jane Shilling, The Times

  • "The Uncommon Reader improves delightfully on an otherwise depressing reality, while slily arraigning the ambiguous British romance with the monarchy and its current avatar." - Jonathan Keates, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Uncommon Reader is a political and literary satire. But it's also a lovely lesson in the redemptive and subversive power of reading and how one book can lead to another and another and another. (...) The Uncommon Reader is an appreciation of reading not out of obligation, but purely for pleasure, without being preachy and pretentious." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

  • "What might in less capable hands result in a labored exercise or an embarrassing instance of literary lêse-majesté here becomes a delicious light comedy, as well as a meditation on the power of print. (...) You can finish The Uncommon Reader in an hour or two, but it is charming enough and wise enough that you will almost certainly want to keep it around for rereading -- unless you decide to share it with friends. Either way, this little book offers what English readers would call very good value for money." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 'uncommon reader' of the title of this novella is English Queen Elizabeth II. In Bennett's charming little fantasy the Queen's life takes a dramatic turn when she discovers the pleasure of reading -- much to the chagrin of many around her.
       At first the Queen isn't a big book fan at all:

She had 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.
       It's her corgis that lead her to the books: following them one day she is confronted by the City of Westminster travelling library van, doing its weekly rounds. Curious, she engages the librarian-driver in conversation, and then feels obliged to borrow a book. One thing leads to another, and she finds she's hooked. Along with Norman, a kitchen skivvy who is the only other borrower from the mobile library and whom she soon promotes to the upper floors to become, as she calls it, her amanuensis, she embarks on a massive reading tour, immersing herself in what books she can.
       Not everyone at the palace is pleased by her new obsession, or understands it. When she mentions to her private secretary that she had met so many authors but hadn't read their work and thus hadn't been able to talk to them about it he replies: "But ma'am must have been briefed, surely ?" But as she explains:
     '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. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.'
       Bennett has good fun with some of the unique issues that arise when it is the Queen that is reading, from the limits of her own, not very inviting library to having known so many of the people who wrote these books. (She invites a group of writers over, too, but that doesn't work out quite as well: writers in real life don't prove nearly as engaging and rewarding as they can be on the page.) And her efforts to get the Prime Minister reading also fall short.
       Meanwhile, Bennett has everyone at court trying to undermine her new-found obsession, from getting rid of Norman behind her back to trying to limit her access to books. They don't seem to find it quite becoming, or suitable for a woman in her position.
       Reading does affect her work:
     Still, though reading absorbed her, what the Queen had not expected was the degree to which it drained her of enthusiasm for anything else.
       She's become an opsimath, "one who learns only late in life", and fortunately she will not be deterred. She finds:
     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.
       Bennett ultimately takes this fantasy one step further, when reading itself isn't quite enough any longer (allowing him a dramatic, clever denouement) -- perhaps a bit much, but one way to wind things up. But along the way he does offer a very enjoyable story of the pleasures of reading (and the pleasure of the obsession) in a book that is, itself, a great pleasure to read. Bennett writes so well and easily, and has such a deft comic touch that it's all quite enthralling, even at its silliest.
       At little more than a hundred pages, it is difficult not to read this book in a single sitting. And what very good fun it is ! Highly recommended.

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The Uncommon Reader: Reviews: Alan Bennett: Other books by Alan Bennett under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author, playwright, and actor Alan Bennett appeared in Beyond the Fringe and has written numerous highly acclaimed works.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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