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This title in other editions

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella


The Uncommon Reader: A Novella Cover




At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

‘Now that I have you to myself, said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘Ive been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.

‘Ah, said the president. ‘Oui.

The ‘Marseillaise and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.

‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point, and she took up her soup spoon, ‘was he as good?

Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous

playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Can-terbury.

‘Jean Genet, said the Queen again, helpfully. ‘Vous le connaissez?

‘Bien sûr, said the president.

‘Il mintéresse, said the Queen.

‘Vraiment? The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.

It was the dogs fault. They were snobs and ordinarily, having been in the garden, would have gone up the front steps, where a footman generally opened them the door.

Today, though, for some reason they careered along the terrace, barking their heads off, and scampered down the steps again and round the end along the side of the house, where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.

It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasnt a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.

The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, ‘Im sorry about this awful racket, where-upon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.

She put her head out of the door. ‘Shut up this minute, you silly creatures, which, as had been the moves intention, gave the driver/librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.

‘One has never seen you here before, Mr . . .

‘Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, maam.

‘Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?

‘Only from Westminster, maam.

‘And you are . . . ?

‘Norman, maam. Seakins.

‘And where do you work?

‘In the kitchens, maam.

‘Oh. Do you have much time for reading?

‘Not really, maam.

‘Im the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.

Mr Hutchings smiled helpfully.

‘Is there anything you would recommend?

‘What does Your Majesty like?

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasnt sure. Shed 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 didnt have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; pref-

erences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasnt doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesnt have a ticket?

‘No problem, said Mr Hutchings.

‘One is a pensioner, said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.

‘Maam can borrow up to six books.

‘Six? Heavens!

Meanwhile the ginger-haired young man had made his choice and given his book to the librarian to stamp. Still playing for time, the Queen picked it up.

‘What have you chosen, Mr Seakins? expecting it to be, well, she wasnt sure what she expected, but it wasnt what it was. ‘Oh. Cecil Beaton. Did you know him?

‘No, maam.

‘No, of course not. Youd be too young. He always used to be round here, snapping away. And a bit of a tartar. Stand here, stand there. Snap, snap. And theres a book about him now?

‘Several, maam.

‘Really? I suppose everyone gets written about sooner or later.

She riffled through it. ‘Theres probably a picture of me in it somewhere. Oh yes. That one.

Of course, he wasnt just a photographer. He designed, too. Oklahoma!, things like that.

‘I think it was My Fair Lady, maam.

‘Oh, was it? said the Queen, unused to being contradicted. ‘Where did you say you worked? She put the book back in the boys big red hands.

‘In the kitchens, maam.

She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking

volumes she saw a name she remembered. ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that. She took the book out and gave it to Mr Hutchings to stamp.

‘What a treat! she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.

‘Shes not a popular author, maam.

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.

Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasnt necessarily the road to the publics heart.

The Queen looked at the photograph on the back of the jacket. ‘Yes. I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head. She smiled and Mr Hutchings knew that the visit was over. ‘Goodbye.

He inclined his head as they had told him at the library to do should this eventuality ever arise, and the Queen went off in the direction of the garden with the dogs madly barking again, while Norman, bearing his Cecil Beaton, skirted a chef lounging outside by the bins having a cigarette and went back to the kitchens.

Shutting up the van and driving away, Mr Hutchings reflected that a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett would take some reading. He had never got very far with her himself and thought, rightly, that borrowing the book had just been a polite gesture. Still, it was one that he appreciated and

as more than a courtesy. The council was always threatening to cut back on the library, and the patronage of so distinguished a borrower (or customer, as the council preferred to call it) would do him no harm.

‘We have a travelling library, the Queen said to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.

‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.

‘You remember Oklahoma!?

‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged. Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.

‘Was that Cecil Beaton?

‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.

‘Smelled delicious.

‘Whats that?

‘A book. I borrowed it.

‘Dead, I suppose.


‘The Beaton fellow.

‘Oh yes. Everybodys dead.

‘Good show, though.

And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning as the Queen opened her book.

Excerpted from The Uncommon Reader by Forelake Ltd. Copyright © 2007 by Forelake Ltd. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 7 comments:

cblaker, November 8, 2014 (view all comments by cblaker)
I loved this book! I don't like using exclamation points, but this novella was great. For those who enjoy reading this book is a treat. The story begins when Queen Elizabeth II accidentally enters a mobile library. Out of politeness, she checks out a book. Prior to this, she had never read for pleasure.
The first book she reads is boring, but one book leads to another and it soon becomes an all consuming passion. Her new habit causes much consternation in the royal household from Prince Philip to the lowly pages. The book touches upon many of the same emotions and ideas that passionate readers have in a functionally illiterate world.
The ending is brilliant.
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Jonathan Kuzma, August 11, 2012 (view all comments by Jonathan Kuzma)
This was a very enjoyable book, in which are detailed the manifold joys and pains of being a reader. One reads and gains new understandings, wider horizons and heightened awareness, but becomes hopelessly unsettled in the real world: no pleasure without a price. Mr.Bennett shares my love for Proust, and the Frenchman's work has effects on the Queen, the Uncommon Reader herself, which I experienced myself. Merci, M. Bennett. The novella has a perfect little ending which I didn't expect.
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sjiwani, June 22, 2012 (view all comments by sjiwani)
This book will introduce you to other books to consider reading such as books by Proust, Sylvia Plath, Cowper, and others. That's what I really enjoyed about this book; it alluded to others books that just made me more curious. The ending of the book leaves us to question the purpose of our own reading habits. Is it simply for pleasure and enjoyment or does it lead us nowhere? At times the book is just plain funny. It also begs the question whether the current Queen Elizabeth has read this book since she's the primary character, and whether she does read on a regular basis. And if so, what does she read? For summer it's a quick read. Enjoy!
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Product Details

Bennett, Alan
Picador USA
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Single Author - British & Irish
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
September 2008
Grade Level:
8.25 x 5.5 in

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Humor » General
Featured Titles » General
Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$13.00 In Stock
Product details 224 pages Picador USA - English 9780312427641 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Bennett has fun with the proper behavior and protocol at the palace....There are lessons packed in here, but Bennett doesn't wallop readers with them. It's a fun little book."
"Review" by , "Hilarious and pointed....[A] lovely lesson in the redemptive and subversive power of reading and how one book can lead to another and another and another....But most of all, The Uncommon Reader is a lot of fun to read."
"Review" by , "Clever and entertaining....The Uncommon Reader is a celebration of both reading and its counterpart, independent thinking."
"Review" by , "Bennett poses a delicious and very funny what-if....Mr. Bennett has written a captivating fairy tale...a tale that showcases its author's customary èlan and keen but humane wit."
"Review" by , The Uncommon Reader takes us into those blended moods in which we don't know what to think....Bennett's queen, wonderfully, alights on books that make no sense at all and play with one's sense of possibility."
"Review" by , The Uncommon Reader, [Bennett's] new novella, is a kind of palace fairy tale for grown-ups. Once again he tells a story about an eccentric old lady, a character type he seems to enjoy....This time, his odd, isolated heroine is the queen of England. The story of her budding love affair with literature blends the comic and the poignant so smoothly it can only be by Bennett."
"Review" by , "The delights of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader begin with its title, a gentle but deft play on words, and flow forth in easeful perfection for the 120 pages that follow. (The infallible Mr. Bennett is the Brit responsible for such wonderful imports as Beyond the Fringe, Talking Heads and The History Boys.) The Uncommon Reader is quite lovely in ambition: a little cameo that, if you look closely, is about a very public woman waking up, late in life, to the fact that she has seen everything but the world."
"Review" by , "In this charming novella Alan Bennett imagines what might occur if the sovereign of England, Queen Elizabeth herself, were suddenly to develop a ravenous passion for books. What might in less capable hands result in a labored exercise or an embarrassing instance of literary lèse-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."
"Review" by , "The conceit offered here by Mr. Bennett, the beloved British author and dramatist, 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....By the time the book reaches its hilarious and stunning conclusion, which I wont reveal here, a reader leaves wishing for more."
"Review" by , "What one wouldn't give to be a fly within Buckingham Palace walls. Only then could one witness the royal reaction to The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett's deliciously funny fantasia about Queen Elizabeth."
"Review" by , "[Bennett] dispenses his observations on the purpose of reading...with the light hand of true authority."
"Review" by , "Bennett has crafted a novella, of which the only complaint is that one wishes there were more, more, more of this charming, genteel, beguiling (and in one passage, gloriously bawdy) story."
"Review" by , "Bennett's absorption with royalty in works like A Question of Attribution and The Madness of King George III has sometimes seemed more cozy than critical, as if he were anxious to join the very establishment he purports to mock. Subtler than either of these in its playfulness, The Uncommon Reader improves delightfully on an otherwise depressing reality, while slyly arraigning the ambiguous British romance with the monarchy and its current avatar."
"Review" by , "A royal fable celebrating the transformative properties (and a few of the unsettling consequences) of reading as an obsession."
"Review" by , "British screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Bennett, author of the Tony Award-winning play The History Boys, has written a wry and unusual story about the subversive potential of reading."
"Synopsis" by , A deliciously funny novella that celebrates the pleasure of reading. When the Queen, in pursuit of her wandering corgis, stumbles upon a mobile library she feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Aided by Norman, a young man from the palace kitchen who frequents the library, Bennett describes the Queen's transformation as she discovers the liberating pleasures of the written word.

With the poignant and mischievous wit of The History Boys, England's best-loved author revels in the power of literature to change even the most uncommon reader's life.

"Synopsis" by ,
The inimitable Alan Bennett selects and comments upon six favorite poets and the pleasures of their works

"Synopsis" by ,
In this candid, thoroughly engaging book, Alan Bennett creates a unique anthology of works by six well-loved poets. Freely admitting his own youthful bafflement with poetry, Bennett reassures us that the poets and poems in this volume are not only accessible but also highly enjoyable. He then proceeds to prove irresistibly that this is so.


Bennett selects more than seventy poems by Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Philip Larkin. He peppers his discussion of these writers and their verse with anecdotes, shrewd appraisal, and telling biographical detail: Hardy lyrically recalls his first wife Emma in his poetry, though he treated her shabbily in real life. The fabled Auden was a formidable and off-putting figure at the lectern. Larkin, hoping to subvert snooping biographers, ordered personal papers shredded upon his death.


Simultaneously profound and entertaining, Bennett’s book is a paean to poetry and its creators, made all the more enjoyable for being told in his own particular voice.

"Synopsis" by ,

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. 

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