If you’re American and heard of Alan Bennett, you’ll know that he is author of The History Boys a smashing Broadway success and then movie. If you’re British and heard of Alan Bennett, you’ll more likely know of him as an extraordinary playwright, novelist and all around comedic guy.
I studied Bennett’s plays while abroad at Oxford. He was a key author in my course about modern British playrights, along with Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. Where Orton’s humor is preverse with his humor, and Stoppard is clever when slotted into his dramas (Stoppard also wrote Shakespeare in Love), I found Bennett’s comedy the most clever.
Which is why I was delighted when I picked up a copy of The Uncommon Reader at last year’s Book Expo America, and I’m berating myself for waiting to read this fun, slim novel when I’ve had it since June.
The uncommon reader is the Queen of England who, one day finds a mobile library outside her door (a mobile library is a bus loaded up with books that drives from town to town for people who can’t get to the library — Ian Sansom has a whole series around this concept, which I also recommend). Obviously, this book is made up — a mobile library would never get close enough to the palace grounds that the Queen and her dogs could just walk outside and take a book. But it happens, and it changes the Queen’s life. She becomes a voracious reader, which changes how she sees her job, her self, and other people, mostly for the better even if her staff sees her reading habit as dangerous.
Not only is this a fun farce, but it also seems to be Bennett’s love letter to books: “What she was finding also was how one book lead to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” Anyone who’s ever gotten wrapped up in a book knows that feeling. In fact, I put work aside for 20 minutes this morning to finish The Uncommon Reader and write about it here before delving into a lengthy article I’m writing about tax debt. Blick.
This issue of how you pick books, and how one leads to another was something we talked about at last night’s National Book Critics Circle panel. So here’s my question to you: what book have you found by accident? How did you get there? And where did it take you?