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THE UNCOMMON READER By Alan Bennett, Faber, Rs 495

It is strange how one has to wait till the end of the year to read the book one loved most in 2007. Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader will be enjoyed by anybody who loves books and the act of reading. It is funny, at passing moments poignant and extraordinarily thoughtful.

It has a deceptively simple storyline. One day, the corgis belonging to Her Majesty, the Queen, went barking along the terrace at the van that was parked in the royal grounds. Her Majesty discovered, when she came after her dogs, that the van belonged to the Westminster travelling library whose sole borrower in the palace is Norman, a functionary in the royal kitchen. Her Majesty, out of sheer courtesy decided to borrow a book, and struck up a conversation with Norman who is an avid and attentive reader.

Thus begins the conversion of the most important person in the United Kingdom. She becomes a reader. Her first choice from the Westminster travelling library is not very promising: a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. “A little dry,’’ she tells Norman, but she finished it. “Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato — one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.’’

The journey once begun is unstoppable and its directions and consequences totally unpredictable. “One book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.’’ As she read more, she began to draw books from various libraries, including some of her own. Her loyal ally was Norman whom she had promoted from the kitchen to her personal staff much to the dismay of the equerries.

Books begin to take up more of Her Majesty’s time and she begins to ponder about what she read. “The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth: letters a republic.’’

Reading leads to neglect of royal duties. It upsets protocol and established practices. Palace intrigues ensue to stop Her Majesty from her pursuit of books. But there is no stopping her.

Alan Bennett tells the story with a wry humour and with a twist at the end. He makes the distant figure of the Queen a plausible character as a fellow reader. Bennett even makes her read Proust and she presents to the bewildered members of her Privy Council a rather good summary of the great novel. Reading redeems Regina Elizabeth II in the eyes of readers.

There is something very fetching about the image of Her Majesty laughing aloud in bed as she reads a book. Haven’t we all done it?

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