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Review: “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac

October 19, 2010

The Rights of the Reader Cover

I have been putting off writing my review of Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader. Quite honestly, the tasks of weeding through all the amazing quotes I wanted to share and shrinking all my comments down into a manageable review were rather daunting. Really, I would recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the book head out to the local bookstore or library and just get a copy. At only 165 highly illustrated pages, The Rights of the Reader takes no time to get through but will leave you with plenty to ponder.

The Rights of the Reader was originally written in French and published in 1992. The edition I read, published by Candlewick Press in 2008, was translated by Sarah Adams and illustrated and introduced by the fabulous Quentin Blake (who illustrated all of Roald Dahl’s books). Pennac, now a writer, used to teach, which explains why much of The Rights of the Reader focuses on the pedagogy of reading (as it is approached in France) and the relationship between young people and books.

The book is divided into four parts, which build on each other:

Part 1: Birth of the Alchemist

In the opening section of The Rights of the Reader, Pennac contrasts the teenage reluctant reader and with the young child  eagerly awaiting her bedtime story. How does a child go from being entranced by books to struggling with them? From finding magic in the first word written word he learns to dreading the English composition due Friday? How does reading go from a joy–a reward, even–to a chore, a form of punishment?

There is, of course, television. There are generational differences. But Pennac places a heavy responsibility on the parents:

If young people don’t like reading, let’s not blame television or the modern world or school. Or rather, blame them all, but only after asking what we have done to that ideal reader since the days when we played at being both storyteller and book.

With the onset of school, Mom and Dad start thinking like teachers instead of reading to a child with no strings attached. They expect their child to explain what he’s read, asking questions to make sure he’s understood. Instead of being allowed to experience the language and emotions, children are required to interpret each story. With these changing expectations comes a change in the child’s attitude toward reading. And to Pennac, parents play a role in this shift.

The key, says Pennac, to preventing this crippling transformation is reading aloud. Even when a child has begun learning to read, her parents must continue to bring stories alive for her.

Part 2: Reading Matters (The Dogma)

In the second section, Pennac turns his attention to how the French school system teaches books. He comments:

Schools everywhere have always confined themselves to making students learn techniques and write essays, while proscribing treading for pleasure. It seems to be established in perpetuity, in every part of the world, that enjoyment has no part to play in the curriculum, and that knowledge can only be the fruit of suffering.

There is, of course, the occasional teacher who manages to impart her enthusiasm for her subject to her students, but this sort of educator is rare. Kids who liked reading before they got to school will continue to read, regardless of their classes. The ones who didn’t probably won’t become readers through school; they’ll just learn to “talk around the book” in order to pass their literature classes.

Pennac’s argument is by all means, teach the curriculum, but teach it with enthusiasm. Help the students learn to love reading by sharing your enthusiasm for and enjoyment of books. And–yes–read aloud.

Part 3: The Gift of Reading

For this third part of The Rights of the Reader, Pennac sets up a fictional class:

Failures is the word. Washed up, while their friends are safely on board high school steamers heading for “big careers.” This is the human wreckage left behind by the academic tide.

Lucky students. They’ve ended up with a teacher who will read to them. He pulls out a massive tome and begins to read, despite the students’ protests that they are too old, or not interested. They need not take notes, he assures them; they need only listen. And so they do. As he reads, time flies. The students discover that books do not, in fact, require mountains of time to get through; nor are they necessarily dull. By reading aloud and simply asking the students to listen, the teacher undoes all his pupils’ preconceived notions of what it means to read.

Pennac insists that, once the interest in books has been rekindled, learning and reading will follow naturally. Heck, the curriculum might even get covered without anyone noticing. Pennac writes:

The question of what [the students have] understood (the final question) isn’t without interest. Have they understood the text? Yes, yes, of course. But what they’ve understood above all is that once you’ve come to terms with the idea of reading, and the text is no longer a paralyzing enigma, then the struggle to find its meaning becomes a pleasure. The fear of not understanding overcome, effort and pleasure work powerfully in tandem. The more I try, the more I enjoy; and the more I enjoy, the more I want to try.

Part 4: The Rights of the Reader

In this section, Pennac lists ten Rights of the Reader and offers a brief discussion of each. It was my favorite part of the book, the piece to which I could best relate and the easiest lesson to take away with me. To keep this post from developing into a book itself, I’ll just refer you to my earlier post about The Rights of the Reader, in which I list and discuss each of the ten rights.

My Thoughts

I really enjoyed Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader. Though I am neither a parent nor an educator, the points he makes resonate with my own experience. When my siblings and I were children, my mother spent long hours reading to us from all kinds of books. We would bring our pillows and blankets into one sibling’s room according to a rotating schedule. Then we would all curl up together to listen to the story. These daily reading sessions are among my fondest memories, and I have no doubt they helped shape me into the reader I am today.

In high school, though, the constant analysis of classics led me to avoid them. Until very recently, I don’t think I’d ever picked up a classic outside of a classroom setting. To me, classics were boring and hard and inaccessible without the application of extended effort.

Not long ago, I decided to listen to To Kill a Mockingbird as an audiobook, and you know what? I loved it. I’ve listened to several classics since then and enjoyed every one. It helps me immensely to have the stories brought alive through the reader’s voice. I’ve found I will pick classics up more readily and enjoy them more easily in written form now that I’ve gotten over my classics angst.

I’d spent years suspecting classics existed just to torture poor students. When I read this line in third section of The Rights of the Reader, I felt like it had been written for me:

What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.

Is every parent going to devote hours to reading to his child? Probably not. Will every teacher, upon reading The Rights of the Reader suddenly begin to infuse her teaching with enthusiasm and spend every class reading Joyce and Salinger to her students? I doubt it. But this slim little volume has wonderful things to say about books and reading to anyone who will listen, be they teacher, parent, student, or book lover.

Bonus: A Wordle!

One of the minichallenges, hosted by Carina at Reading Through Life, during last Saturday’s Readathon was to create a Wordle based on a post you liked. I used Pennac’s ten Rights of the Reader from my earlier post about them. Here’s my Wordle:

Your Turn!

How do you feel about Pennac’s observations? Do you have any examples (or counterexamples) from your own experience?

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6 Comments
  1. October 19, 2010 11:26 am

    We started reading to our son almost from the day he was born. I recently gave a book to a teacher for her 9 month old and she was excited because she said it was her baby’s first book. I couldn’t believe it. Teachers should read to their classes, but they don’t have time with all the paperwork they have to do these days.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 19, 2010 11:36 am

      Wow, 9 months! I wonder if people think kids won’t get anything out of books until they understand more language? I wonder if, in France, where Pennac teaches, there is less paperwork? Because here, I know teachers are drowning in requirements and paperwork and such. The year I aided in a middle school, the teachers spent so much time trying to make sure the kids were ready for the yearly state mandated testing that it was really tough to get anything else done.

  2. October 19, 2010 12:54 pm

    Love love love that book! It’s such a great manifesto for readers no matter what.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 19, 2010 9:39 pm

      Absolutely. I loved every page.

  3. October 19, 2010 8:40 pm

    I just loved reading this post. As a lifelong reader and now a mother to a young child, I found so much of interest. My son is discovering the joys of reading on his own, and it was good to be reminded that I should still read aloud to him … to make the story come alive. My dad read to me and it is one of my most treasured memories from childhood.

    I’m going to look for this book … and I’m glad to “know my rights.”

    Excellent post. Thank you!

    • Erin permalink*
      October 19, 2010 9:41 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It sounds like you’d love the book. Your son can learn his rights early 🙂

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