The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – or, what reading can do for the Uncommon Writer

Alan Bennett The Uncommon ReaderI’ve just finished reading ‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett. It is a charming and amusing story, which begins when the Queen discovers the mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace one day. She goes on to discover the joys of reading, a luxury she has had little time for up until then.

The story is Alan Bennett all over; I could hear his voice while I was reading. I also realised after I was about halfway through the book that it was a discourse on writing as well as reading.

Read if you intend to write

The advice to read, read, and read some more, and to read diversely, is given over and over again by writers and authors. This is just what the Queen does in this story. Once she starts reading she finds it difficult to stop, even taking books with her in the royal car, waving and reading at the same time. Reading is important for absorbing language, grammar, and techniques of writing. Reading fills us with knowledge and inspiration.

Reading avidly takes the Queen away from some of her duties but begins to generate empathy for others, namely the more general populace. Reading helps us understand lives outside our own and helps us develop empathy through glimpses into other people’s lives; the capacity to recognise emotions that are being experienced by another. This is a well-known effect of reading, particularly of novels.

Make notes

She also makes copious notes. Notes about what she has read, notes about what she thinks while she is reading, and notes about thoughts she has after reading. All good writers make notes, notes about experiences, people, places, thoughts. It is what fuels your writing.

Find your voice

Finding her own voice is a dilemma for a personage who has always used other people’s voices in speeches, discussions, and when meeting the general public. Of course, it causes some disquiet when she begins to find her own voice and chooses to talk to people about what she wants to discuss, mainly reading. In the meantime she is also finding her own writing voice.

Write what you know

When she decides to start writing, she wants to write about what she knows, something else we writers are advised to do. Write what you know, whether experience, places, or subjects, it sounds less false and contrived. If you want to write about what you don’t know, make sure you research thoroughly first. There will always be someone who will pick up that you don’t know what you are talking about if you don’t find out something about your subject (pardon the pun).

With the wealth of knowledge, experience, and her notes, the Queen starts to feel she can write and has something to write about. She also realises she needs the time to absorb herself in this new activity. I won’t tell you how she does this … you need to read the book to find out for yourself.