My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
I started reading The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett as a shameless attempt to pad the number of books I’d read this year (thanks for the incentive, Goodreads!), but I had been planning to read it, and I’m glad I finally did. Bennett uses the frame story of the Queen of England slowly becoming a voracious reader to explore what it means to be a reader, and plenty of people on this site will identify with the evolution of the Queen’s attitudes and emotions: irritation at having to put down a book, a sort of hopelessness at the size of the literary canon and a sense of having started too late, the feeling of understanding an author who seemed too difficult, the guilty anticlimax of ever meeting any of the people responsible for these books
Bennett uses the familiar world of reading to prod at the less-familiar world of the British monarchy. While his book remains light and for the most part avoids taking any firm positions, the idea of the monarchy he sketches is that of an institution that mostly exists for the sake of remaining an institution, an office surrounded by questions (how should a Queen behave? How should she serve her people in a democratic age? What should be the purpose of her office? What, if anything, is her function in the government? How should her subjects regard her? How should she treat her subjects?) like a diver surrounded by jellyfish: If any are pressed too insistently, the resulting sting could be fatal.
Two different definitions of the word “subject” lie at the center of this book—both the political and grammatical sense. The Queen is the only person in the British Empire who is not a “subject” of the Empire, and neither is she ever the “subject” of a sentence. Both the Queen and anyone with whom she speaks use abstracted, third-person pronouns when referring to her: she says “One” rather than “I;” they say “your Majesty” rather than “you.” In fact, the one thing that seems to link all the practices and traditions of the British royalty is that they consistently lead the monarch away from subjection, from the fact of being a subject. She is supreme, but also essentially nebulous, unable to become too specific lest she unwittingly transform from an idea, a lodestar in the national consciousness, to an old rich lady with an impressive collection of hats.
But the act of reading, particularly the act of reading fiction, is predicated on the idea that the reader is a subject—a thinking, feeling entity, observing what is written, voluntarily submitting oneself to the authorial will. And Bennett ultimately concludes that one cannot become one type of subject without the possibility of becoming other types as well.
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