“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.”
This was a Christmas present from my lovely friend C, who always buys the nicest gifts. I thought it’d be the ideal follow-up to War and Peace: short, funny and containing absolutely no references at all to battles, Napoleon or the nature of war, thank you very much.
Generally speaking I have absolutely zero interest in the royal family but I like books about the love of books so this short novella was a great choice. In it, Her Madge the Queen stumbles across a mobile library parked around the back of Buckingham Palace and is encouraged, for the first time ever, to withdraw a library book. It sparks a love for reading that soon takes over her life and begins to encroach on her royal duties. She soon finds that her new passion is frowned upon by her family and her staff, who suspect that the formerly dutiful monarch is losing her grip in her old age.
The Uncommon Reader is pretty charming. I love Beckett’s tone throughout; ironic, slightly dry, a bit snarky in places. There are some great exchanges between the Queen and her exasperated equerry Sir Kevin that made me smile:
“I’m just kicking the tyres on this one, ma’am, but it would help if we were able to put out a press release saying that, apart from English literature, Your Majesty was also reading ethnic classics.”
“Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Kama Sutra?”
Sir Kevin sighed.
It’s quite a nice way of looking at why books are important, all the good they do us, and why they’re often treated with suspicion by those who think readers ought to have better things to do with their time. I guess it’s also a slightly cheeky way for Beckett to poke fun at the role of the ever impartial and aloof monarch in an increasingly noisy and opinionated world.
This ended up being a well-timed read as my local council is currently gathering feedback on their proposed cuts to the library service, proposals which involve completely axing the mobile library service in rural areas. I got a bit carried away in the “Any other comments or suggestions” part of the questionnaire so some poor data inputter in the council offices is going to have a horrible job typing that rambling, angry mess up (providing anything happens to these forms, that is).
I bet the Queen doesn’t have to put up with this kind of crap.