The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
(North Kingstown, RI: BBC Audiobooks America, 2007)
"In this deliciously funny novella that celebrates the pleasure of reading, the Uncommon Reader is none other than Her Majesty the Queen, who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely (J.R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett, and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people such as the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world, and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny. 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."
"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."
Very funny, likeable little book perfect for a long, tedious drive. I started an assignment in north central Neighboring State last week, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it's lovely to have dinner with my family and sleep in my own bed every night, especially as the town in question is no Boston. The non-commuting consultants on site don't even have the relief and picturesque walking trails of a comfortable hotel to retreat to after hours, as I did at my last assignment; they're bunking in college dorms. I know there's no conveniently-located kitchen, though I suppose there may be mini-fridges in their rooms; I couldn't bear to ask about the bathroom facilities. Given all that, being home in the evenings with a cat at my feet and show tunes from my daughter's Pandora channels filling my ears isn't hard to take. Coming home, though, is another matter. No matter which route I take, it's a 90 minute drive, far enough that I leave home before anyone else is up in the morning and go more than halfway there in the dark. Not urban dark, where the storefronts and streetlamps and incessant traffic still provide enough light to read by, or even suburban dark, where you've at least got the unflattering purplish yellow sodium streetlight glare if you need to check a map. Nope, this 3 or 4 small, roll-the-sidewalks-up-at-9-pm small towns, separated by miles of pitch black, bottle-of-ink rural darkness. More often than not, the predawn mornings are blanketed with what weather forecasters call "patchy fog," which means no visual cues to tell you if you're just driving over a hill or about to plunge off the edge of the world.
While there's no way around the length of the commute -- my skyrocketing gas bill; the bleak, sleepy loneliness of the drive in; the speed with which bedtime comes if you get home after 6 and eat supper after 7 -- I've developed a routine to alleviate its tedium. Before work, I listen to Morning Edition for about 45 minutes and 3 different radio stations, stop for coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts that's just about at the halfway point, and then put some news and current events podcast or other on for the remainder of the drive there. On the way home, though, I pick something lighter and more strictly entertaining; making me laugh out loud is a plus, though mostly it just needs to be engaging and fast-paced enough to keep me from getting drowsy at a point in the day when my energy's already pretty low.
An Uncommon Reader was perfect for the job. It's funny and well-worded, compelling enough to hold my attention without being so action-packed that if a noisy truck or complicated merge makes you miss a few lines, you're hopelessly lost. At several points, I found myself smiling fondly at Bennett's clever phrasings as one would over coffee with an old friend. (Certain excerpts reminded me of conversations with a particular friend I haven't seen in months, and chuckling even more at the knowledge that as someone even more stubbornly proud of her Irish heritage than I am, she'll be appalled that it's a story about a British monarch that prompts me to drop her a line.) And as a voracious reader myself, it felt like a vindication of sorts to enjoy a book all about the pleasures of reading and how what one reads can change you, with a main character who often has that familiar experience of having some dreary obligation to attend to when you'd really just rather be curled up at home with your cats (or in Her Majesty's case, corgis) and a good novel.
The only down sides I saw here were ones that probably can't be avoided in a novella. Call me nosy, but I kept wanting to know more: what was it, for example, about the experience of reading or the particular books she'd read that prompted the Queen's unexpected and unprecedented feelings of tender sympathy for the doddering Sir Claude? And what, exactly, were the dilemmas or alternatives she considered that lead to her climactic announcement at the book's end?