100 Book Challenge, Fiction

Book #39: The Uncommon Reader

Is it weird to review the same book twice?  I’m having that issue on the site, now that Red Hot Eyebrows has been around so long and I have some favorites I keep coming back to.  Not just favorites, but classics that deserve a re-read.  The last time I read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett was ten years ago, back when this site was still had that new website smell.  I don’t know why the memory of it tickled the back of my brain, but it burbled up and I was struck with an intense desire to read it again.

You can always go read that other post to find a synopsis of the book, so I’ll skip that part.  Instead I’ll share what impacted me so deeply.  At the beginning of the book, the Queen is reading whatever Norman, the young man from the palace kitchen, recommends.  She isn’t really sure what she likes and is new to the idea of reading for pleasure.  As time goes on and she broadens her exposure to books, she starts to have preferences and is able to discern better what is giving her what she needs.  She even returns to books that before she found difficult and challenging and is better able to comprehend them.  Eventually, she outgrows Norman since his taste in reading no longer fills her needs.

The Queen changes in other ways as well.  She thinks more deeply and is less satisfied with her role in life as a figurehead.  Because she has begun to disrupt the status quo, she’s unsettling her entire household and staff.  No one knows what to do with her and she often feels alone in her newfound abilities as a reader and thinker.

Eventually, reading isn’t enough and she begins to write.  Everyone is frightened by this new development and thinks it must be a tell-all, or maybe memoirs, and most people hope it’s just a book on how to live a good life.  Something safe that won’t reflect badly on the monarchy.  But the reason the Queen started to write is because she needed to.  All that reading, and not light reading, mind you, caused her to grow into a writer.  A good one, too.  It was as natural a process as seeds becoming flowers.

What struck me about this growth in the Queen is how closely I’ve seen this process happen in my own life and those of other readers.  If a person is able to learn to read for pleasure and has a desire to read for growth, it inevitably happens, though the timeline can vary.  I’m not talking about going from popular novels to highbrow literature.  I’m talking about the process of, “Reading is a pleasurable experience” to “Every book I pick up is going to teach me something and I will find books that help me grow.  I will seek truth in everything I read.”

People tend to fall into two camps: hate to read and love to read.  The hate to readers learned from an early age that it’s hard, people were constantly telling them they were doing it wrong or reading the wrong books, or never connected to an author or story.  The love to readers usually picked it up easily, received accolades for what or how much they read, or realized it was entertaining.  But the love to readers I’ve met rarely ever move beyond seeing reading as entertainment.  They tend to pick a genre and stick with it, for instance.  They decide that non-fiction is utterly boring, or they refuse to read anything other than non-fiction.  They’re not seeking truth, they’re filling time.  I’m making vast generalizations and that’s never a good idea.  I’m sure if I talked to a thousand people, they’d all have reasons to refute this as well, but this is my theory, and my exposure to the world of largely caucasian middle class Americans.  Nobody reads this blog anyway so I’m in no danger of offending people.  Maybe if I did have a readership I’d be more careful and diplomatic with my words, but I also hope that I’m getting braver over time.

This is coming across harshly, but it’s by no means putting me in a good light either.  I’ve spend the majority of my life seeing reading as entertainment.  And I’m not even lambasting the concept of reading for entertainment!  It’s a beautiful thing!  I love nothing more than to be entertained by a wonderful book.  I love finding fellow lovers of the same book and talking or arguing about it.  It’s my favorite!  But if I choose to never move on to the stage of reading to grow, reading to change, reading to understand, I’m missing out.

This is where I identify with the Queen in this lovely, fictional, entertaining novella.  She wants more.  And that more drives her to read more and eventually to write and ultimately, to completely change her life how she wants to.  It inspires me and speaks to what I’m trying to achieve in my reading life.

Goodreads rating: 5 stars


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has written 287 articles on Red Hot Eyebrows.

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