The Rights of the Reader
At the last minute, I added Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader to my Banned Books Week reading. I blame it for derailing my plans to read all three previously selected books in one week (I have about 30 pages of The Catcher in the Rye left to go), but Pennac’s book has been interesting enough that I don’t mind.
I have an advance reading copy of Candlewick Press’s 2008 edition; it’s translated by Sarah Adams and illustrated by Quentin Blake. I’ll post a full review soon, but I don’t like to quote too much from ARCs, so I’m waiting for a real copy to arrive from another library.
Instead, today, I bring you Daniel Pennac’s 10 Rights of the Reader, as translated by Adams, with commentary by yours truly. As a bit of background, Pennac is an author and former teacher in France. The Rights of the Reader is really written for teacher and parents about kids and reading, though a lot of what he says can be applied to readers in general. These Rights come from the fourth and final section of the book, after he has explained lots of things I’ll get to in my actual review.
And now, without further ado, The Rights of the Reader:
1. The Right Not to Read
Pennac’s take on this first Right is that educators are in charge of “introducing [children] to the world of literature and providing them with the means to judge freely whether they feel a need for books or not.”
For me, since I’ve already made this decision for myself (heck YES I need books!), The Right Not to Read means that I can choose not to read any book I want. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking I “should” read the next novel by so-and-so, or this really important bestseller, or whatever. But if I don’t have any interest, then I have the right not to read it. And I (and everyone else) should be okay with that decision. It means I also shouldn’t beg someone else to read a book they’re not interested in.
2. The Right to Skip
Pennac begins this chapter by explaining that he read War and Peace for the first time at age twelve or thirteen. Well, really, he only read the bits he cared about: namely, “love and battles.” He skipped the politics, theories, and strategizing. He loved the book and was able to pare it down to what held his interest. In Pennac’s eyes, this self-filtering is highly preferable to letting someone else strip a story down to its bare, abridged bones and then giving that to a young reader.
I still feel like I haven’t really read a book if I haven’t read every word in it. I’ve read a few novels where the author (drily) waxes poetic on politics or history or some other topic that’s not really among my interests, but I nearly always slog through it so that I can say I’ve read the book and be sure I haven’t missed anything important. I’m not a kid, so I don’t really feel I have any excuse. But that’s me exercising my Right…you can do as you wish!
3. The Right Not to Finish a Book
Hey! It’s okay that not everyone loves every book! This is one of my favorite Rights, and one I’d been firm in allowing myself to exercise well before I read Pennac’s book. My version is that life is too short to read bad books. If I’m not trying to find time alone with a book, if reading becomes a chore when it’s supposed to be for pleasure, I will absolutely set the problem book aside. I may pick it up later, or I may be done with it completely, but to me, it’s just not worth soldiering on if I’m not into it. Pennac points out that, as a bonus, you get “the rare satisfaction of not caring when some prig bellows in your ear, ‘Hoooww can you not like Stendhaaaal?’ You just can.”
4. The Right to Read It Again
Pennac’s point is that, as children, we loved to be enchanted by the same story again and again. Why would we not desire this as adults as well? Whether you loved the book the first time you read it or you struggled with it and are giving it a second chance, you deserve The Right to Read It Again.
I absolutely agree that readers have this Right, but I don’t often exercise it. It’s hard for me to reread one book when I have a hundred unread volumes watching reproachfully from my shelves! As Nick Hornby says in The Polysyllabic Spree, ”I don’t reread books often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.” But I like knowing that, if I ever want to, I do have this Right.
5. The Right to Read Anything
In this section, Pennac argues that there are, indeed, good and bad novels; that we usually start out with the bad ones; and that, eventually, we’ll get sick of the bad ones and find ourselves craving something of quality (the classics, of course). While we are finding our way from bad novels to good, we can read anything.
I agree with the Right, but not so much with Pennac’s argument. I don’t think it should be The Right to Read Anything (Which, Once You’ve Developed Any Sense At All, Will Be Classics Only). I think that if you want to go on reading books from the “Bestseller Factory,” as Pennac calls it, then by all means, read away. It’s each reader’s Right to decide what s/he wants to read, period.
6. The Right to Mistake a Book for Real Life
I interpret this Right — and Pennac seems to agree, more or less — to mean that it’s quite alright to get lost in a good book. It’s okay to get caught up in the story to the point that you forget that you’re sitting in your living room and you have to start making dinner in a few minutes and you have a big paper due tomorrow that you haven’t even started yet. These are my favorite books, the ones that sweep me away so thoroughly that I have trouble getting my bearings in my actual life.
7. The Right to Read Anywhere
The whole of Pennac’s explanation of this Right is comprised of two examples of people getting a lot accomplished while on the john. Which, yes, read in the bathroom if you so desire, but it seems a bit anticlimactic to say you have The Right to Read Anywhere! And then suggest only the toilet.
This Right reminds me to always have a book and to never be ashamed to whip it out. I’ve read on the bus, in line at the store, at the DMV, at my kitchen table, waiting for food at a restaurant, in the bathtub, on planes and trains, standing next to my oven waiting for the timer to go off so I can take the bread out of the oven…
8. The Right to Dip In
Pennac sums this Right up beautifully: “It is our right, as readers, to grab a book from anywhere on our shelves, open it wherever we like, and dive straight in, just for a few minutes, because that’s all the time we’ve got.”
Yes! Amen! I love doing this. It keeps me familiar with my books, it gives me a thrill of anticipation, and it makes me happy to experience, even in little bites, the variety of reading material that awaits me.
9. The Right to Read Out Loud
Pennac seems to have a thing for reading out loud. His point is that we love reading aloud as children, so why do we (a) stop reading aloud to our own children while they are still so young and (b) stop reading aloud ourselves?
I adore being read to (which, in my adult life, has translated into a love of audiobooks), but reading aloud has never come easily to me. The only time I employ it, on occasion, is if I’m struggling with a particular dialect or accent in a book. But I do think it’s a marvelous practice, a way of sharing books and the reading experience with one another, so I’m all for it, if it’s your thing.
10. The Right to Be Quiet
Pennac: “Reading offers a kind of companionship that takes no one’s place, but that no one can replace either. It offers no definitive explanation of our destiny but links us inextricably to life.” This relationship with our books is our own, and no one has the right to question it. In this way, we have The Right to Be Quiet, not to explain ourselves.
I agree, but I also interpret this Right in another way. You know that quiet you feel after you read the final word and close the back cover of a particularly absorbing book? For me, I need a few moments to absorb what I’ve read, process it, and make my peace with it before I can move on to the next book. And that’s just fine.
I guess I didn’t do so well with the whole not quoting thing. It’s just so darn quotable! I promise to check everything against the finished edition, when it arrives, and make any corrections that need to be made.
So, what do you think? Do you agree with Pennac’s Rights? Would you change anything? Do you have any rights you’d like to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts!