What if you had never noticed the small things in life? Having lived a privileged life defined by ceremonies and duties, would you have had the time to notice the subtle changes in behavior of the people around you when upset, worried, or flustered? And what would make you start noticing? This is the premise for the brilliantly witty audiobook The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett.
In this audiobook, richly-narrated by the author, the Queen, having never read for pleasure, stumbles upon a bookmobile outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and feels duty bound to check out a book. While she dutifully finishes the first book she checks out, she feels duty bound once again to check out a second book, which is the one that captures her attention and leads to her rabid consumption of books. Helping the Queen on this journey is Norman, a kitchen boy in the palace, who is promoted to page after his encounter with the Queen in the bookmobile. With Norman as her accomplice, the Queen is introduced to an array of authors and begins to see the world through other people’s eyes.
While the Queen enjoys spending all of her time reading, her husband, personal secretary, the Prime Minister, and even the Queen’s beloved Corgis find her reading habit out of character and tiresome, and they (the humans, although the Corgis do show their dissatisfaction by destroying all the books they can sink their teeth into) try to find ways to thwart her reading by any means necessary, including claiming that they thought the book was an incendiary device and blowing it up for her safety or shipping her books to the wrong location when on an official visit to Canada! They also come up with arguments as to why she should not read. It’s selfish of the Queen! It isolates the Queen! It makes the Queen unrelatable! While those around the Queen may find her reading habit rather troublesome, her journey through books opens up a new world where she does begin to notice the small things in life, such as the subtle change in her maid’s face when she is upset.
Bennett finishes his story with a surprise ending where the Queen decides that she not only wants to read, but she wants to write as well. She gathers her Privy Council to explain her plan, and they think that it is a brilliant idea for her to write her memoirs. However, to the consternation of her Privy Council, the Queen decides to embark on writing a radical and challenging novel (radical and challenging being two words that they don’t often have a taste for), and when the Privy Council question her as to the appropriateness of her writing a novel, the Queen offers her solution, which makes for a brilliant and witty ending to an already wonderful story!
With wit and humor, The Uncommon Reader explores the world of books and reading and provides wonderful insight into how books can create new worlds, introduce new types of people, and change lives. What is especially wonderful about the audio version is that the author reads his own work. Bennett’s reading of his novella adds a personal touch and a unique experience for the listener. He adds to this brilliantly and humorously crafted novella through his intimacy and knowledge of the characters, which translates very well into audio.