Two Quick Reads for Anglophiles or Book Lovers

Two books have tumbled into my reading path lately, both of which would make great choices for a book club looking for a fast read. Although completely different in many ways, both books feature very English settings and develop a theme of a love for reading. With busy summer months coming up, these might make fun choices for overtaxed book club readers.

The Uncommon ReaderAlan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, at only 120 pages, is slight in size but not ideas. When the Queen (yes, Elizabeth II) stumbles into a bookmobile on the grounds while walking the dogs, she decides out of politeness that she must check something out and read it. One book leads to another and we (both the royal We and those lucky enough to encounter this book) find ourselves in the midst of a delightful account of how passion for reading can change a life. Norman, a kitchen helper who seems to be the only other patron of the bookmobile, finds himself raised unexpectedly to the position of the Queen’s amanuensis, guiding her from book to book.

Perhaps the funniest part of this wise little book is the distress that Elizabeth’s new habit produces in her advisors, the royal family, and even the public, whom she starts to ask about what they are reading. If their answers aren’t good, the Queen gives them whatever she has just finished. In the end, Bennett reminds us of how the reading habit, even if it isn’t common, adds depth to a life and ripples outward, spreading its effects to the world.

 For a more substantial assignment, add one of Bennett’s equally delightful plays, such as The History Boys or The Madness of King George III to the reading list. Another of his short novels, The Clothes They Stood Up In, about a couple whose lives change when they must replace the items stolen in a burglary, would also make a great companion read.

Alice in SunderlandBryan Talbot’s graphic novel, Alice in Sunderland, will take readers on an entirely different journey, but is also very English and very bookish. Casting himself as a ham actor, a narrating cartoonist, and even as his own boorish audience, Talbot guides us on a tour-de-force trip to Sunderland an its environs in northeast England. The tale uses Lewis Carroll, his Alice books, and their influence on many important readers as its base, but meanders through dozens of fascinating tangents from English history.

Sunderland’s art is a collage of eye-popping styles that fits perfectly with the collage of his writing. He blends book covers, photographs, newspaper recreations, and Alice artwork from William Hogarth and John Tenniel with his own drawings to create a mix that fascinates on every page. By the time you’re finished, you’ll be planning a long trip to England and a quick trip to the local library to pick up copies of the dozens of titles that Talbot touches upon. Longer than the average graphic novel at 319 pages, you’ll still follow the author quickly through the rabbit hole of his tale. If your group would like to dig deeper, pair this with a re-reading of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a treat for adults who haven’t enjoyed it since childhood.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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