Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: The Uncommon Reader

This month it was my turn to make the selection for my neighborhood book club.  This is the second year in a row that I volunteered for January and with as busy as everyone gets around the holidays, I wanted to make sure it wasn't a cumbersome read, either in length or relative heaviness.

I have a somewhat secret resource for interesting, short reads: What is Stephen Harper Reading?  I all started in 2007 when author Yann Martel decided that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper could benefit from a broadening of his literary horizons and began sending him a short selection every other week.  I actually kept up with the list for awhile, appreciating both the quick nature of the reads as well as the opportunity to read someone else's selections and get outside of my comfort zone.  I abandoned the venture when I had trouble procuring some of the selections, but remembered the site as a resource for thoughtful but brief reading selections.

Enter The Uncommon Reader. The basic premise is that one day the Queen (yes, of England) chases an unruly corgi onto the mobile library bus outside Buckingham Palace and, once aboard, feels duty bound to feign an interest and borrow a title - even though she has never taken the time for reading before.  One of her kitchen boys is also in the bus and makes a recommendation, which she in turn reads solely out of a sense of duty.  Much to her surprise, she enjoys the exercise and so begins a love affair with the written word.

The story is a delightful little read.  The Queen gets so absorbed in her reading that she - fastidious as she is is known to be - slacks off a little with her duties and even her appearance.  Who among us hasn't hidden a book under a desk or in a bathroom to sneak a few minutes when the plot thickens?  Her Majesty becomes just as we are - even hiding a book under a blanket in her lap while in the royal carriage on her way to the opening of Parliament.  There is a hilarious irony throughout, as the Prime Minister and the Queen's staff think she has begun to lose her faculties, and plot ways to interrupt her literary adventures.

With the exception of the ending (which I find unrealistic on a deep level having to do with my own reading about the Queen over the years; but which I don't think I can discuss here without a major spoiler), I thought that Bennett captured the Queen's persona (at least the public perception of it) perfectly.

Between the pithy commentary on books, the interpretation of books, writers and writing there is also some food for thought about the nature of language - the receiving and the sharing of it.  The Queen begins to make notes about what she reads - highlights, responses - and I was acutely reminded of my own tendency to interact with what I am reading (which led, coincidentally to the title of this blog).

The author also posits that one can only read (and make sidebar comments) for so long before feeling the urge to enter one's own voice into the fray.  How long were you a blog reader before you started blogging yourself?

How apropos that this little English book should be as a good English beer: light and frothy on the surface with some real substance beneath. 


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