My Book Reviews: The Rights of the Reader
With wit, humor and passion, Pennac takes teachers and parents from the early years of a reader’s life through adulthood, mapping out all of the pitfalls the reader may encounter on the road to reading, and arguing that in the end, if our children do not read it is because we, their adults, have robbed them of the enjoyment of it. He develops ten rights that every reader should possess, and expresses the importance of these rules chapter by chapter, with anecdotes and examples. Quentin Blake’s quirky, entertaining illustrations bring Pennac’s points home in an honest, humorous, and sometimes poignant way.
Pennat begins by describing a young child’s early love of reading. It comes through encountering narrative, shared orally, at the foot of his or her bed. He describes the scene from the point of view of the orator, the parent who tucks the child in at night to hear the story.
The ritual of reading every evening at the end of the bed when they were little — set time, set gestures — was like a prayer. A sudden truce after the battle of the day, a reunion lifted out of the ordinary. We savored the brief moment of silence before the storytelling began, then our voice, sounding like itself again, the liturgy of chapters . . . Yes, reading a story every evening fulfilled the most beautiful, least selfish, and least speculative function of prayer: that of having our sins forgiven.
I loved this passage. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to put so perfectly into words the feeling I get each night as I sit alongside one of my children and open the pages of a book. From the two year old to the nine year old, we each anticipate our moment, just the two of us together, with a quiet breath, warm bodies snuggled together, and we forget about the mess in the kitchen, the hole made in the closet door, the argument over piano practice and whose turn it was to sit in the favorite chair. Instead, we read. We transport ourselves as fellow travelers to deep sea trenches, the green-gabled rooftop on Prince Edward Island, the dark shadows of the Forbidden Forest, and Mr. MacGregor’s garden.
Some places are less enchanted than others, or may have grown so to our eyes by repeated re-tellings and readings. The house of the three bears has become all too familiar for me in our little world of narrative. But Pennac shares something profound, too, about those redundant re-readings.
“Again, again . . .” really means “We must love each other, you and I, if this one story, told and retold, is all we need.” Reading again isn’t about repeating yourself; it’s about offering fresh proof of a love that never tires. That’s why we read it again.
And though I may hide my paperback copies of those Thomas the Tank Engine stories, I love that thought: re-reading is proof of a love that never tires. No wonder our toddlers love to pick up their round-eared, sticky board books over and over again. And no wonder reading becomes a language of love.
The problem, according to Pennac, is when children begin their first attempts at reading independently. Reading is no longer an intimate act. It quickly becomes something to be assessed, a place-holder on the path to academic success or failure. As parents we turn reading at home into a chore, or even worse, a punishment. We become pendantic, and the books our children once escaped to for enjoyment turn hard and cold like prisons.
Pennac offers many ways we can escape this lethal approach to literature, but what he really endorses is returning our readers to their original love of books.
“Our children start out as good readers and will remain so if the adults around them nourish their enthusiasm instead of trying to prove themselves. If we stimulate their desire to learn before making them recite out loud; if we support them in their efforts instead of trying to catch them out; if we give up whole evenings instead of trying to save time; if we make the present come alive without threatening them with the future; if we refuse to turn a pleasure into a chore but nurture it instead.”
I thought about this passage and how it relates to my life as a parent, the manager of a busy household full of busy little people. What stood out the most was the idea of giving up whole evenings for reading. The walls in my home are lined with books. With baskets full of the revolving collection that comes home from the library each week. Some of them never get opened. We don’t have time. It is a terrible thing to say, a terrible thing to confess. Especially when I remember Sunday afternoons growing up, when my mother would call to us that it was ‘reading time’ and we would grab our books, snuggle under blankets, and read alongside each other on the couch, solitary companions in the pages of our books. I need to create that time in my home, with my kids. More than the brief time afforded by our bedtime reading ritual.
Pennac himself acknowledges that days are busy, and that it is easy for reading to get lost as the minutes fly past. But he also says, ”Time to read is always time stolen. (Like time to write, for that matter, or time to love.)”
I know that when I write, I am stealing time from the day. Time when children are still asleep, or back in bed again for naps. Time when dishes stay dirty, the phone doesn’t get answered, hair doesn’t get washed. And time to love is always stolen, too, isn’t it? We steal it from the places it demands to go so that we can stop and listen, comfort, touch. So here is my new resolution: I will become a thief of time, and steal it away for my family to read. Time that will be sanctioned and protected; time in which the rights of the reader will be upheld and obeyed.