The Uncommon Reader

What happens if a reigning monarch, whose native tongue has one of the richest literatures in the world, decides in her old age to start reading? She has met every great writer of five decades and has so far only discussed the weather with them because, 'one did not read.' So what happens now?

Alan Bennet could have made this a straightforward satire. Certainly there is ripe material when one imagines the Queen of England suddenly going book-mad. The story in fact begins with her trying to chat up the President of France about Jean Genet. "Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he's painted? Or, more to the point, was he as good?"  she asks, the panicked President.

Nobody likes the Queen reading because it distracts her from opening parks, mines and sessions of Parliament. Her private secretary deplores his name (Kevin) and his country of origin (New Zealand) but he deplores the distraction of the monarch more and plots against her sole support, unattractive kitchen porter-turned-amanuensis, Norman Seakins. Norman prefers gay writers (hence the Genet!)

Bennet is one of those rare creatures, popular and funny and adored by critics. He could hardly make a wrong move. In this story, The Uncommon Reader, he uses the queen's unique position to gently meditate on the nature of reading and the nature of writing, without ever letting loose his grip on the story. The phenomenal ending also is an optimistic speculation on the nature of the influence of reading on the reader. Uncommon as she may be.

I love this story and could marry it. Let it not be said that I have unreasonable responses to short stories.


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