Review: The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac

Translator: Sarah Ardizzone
Author: Daniel Pennac
Title: The Rights of the Reader
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: 2006 (English trans.; original 1992)
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Length: 165 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing, relevant
Read If You’re: Feeling frustrated with your reading habits 
Quote: “What makes teaching it so difficult is that reading is ultimately a retreat into silence. (75)”
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

I discovered this book solely through library browsing. I plucked it off the library’s “New and Noted” shelf after reading the first three rights on the back:

  1. The right not to read
  2. The right to skip
  3. The right not to finish a book

The slim volume reads like a manifesto for reading, with punchy chapters no more than few pages long. This makes the book easy to read and gives you room to pause and digest what Pennac has just written (and consider what it means for your own reading habits).

The Rights of the Reader functions primarily as an exploration of where adults go wrong when attempting to instill a love of reading into children. Pennac writes from the perspective of parents or teachers who desperately want to raise readers (“We were shamefully cunning too. More than once we tired using the story as a bargaining tool” [28]). In the first part of the book, he chronicles how a child learns to love reading and how a child falls out of love with reading, as they grow into school age. He plots out a familiar timeline as he explores all the little factors that add up to create a youth who loathes reading. I never thought about how children who loved storybooks so much when they were younger can grow into someone who never enjoys reading. Not only does Pennac track that process of how that love is lost, he also offers up the solutions – how teachers and parents can reignite that love of reading. Here is the 22nd chapter in its entirety:

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. If we do all this, we ourselves will rediscover the pleasure of giving freely – because all cultural apprenticeship is free. (46)

Part One, “Birth of the Alchemist”, explores what I described above, while Part Two, “Reading Matters (The Dogma)”, explores how and why to fix the problems that arose in Part One. Pennac places great value on reading aloud. I last recall enjoying being read to aloud in grade five.  Mr. B would read from Gordon Korman’s novels (the funny ones; Korman only wrote funny ones back then). The whole class looked forward to that time. Since then I’ve come to disdain audio books and reading aloud. I appreciate the concept of oral storytelling, and I love the idea of hearing a writer read their own work, but I prefer to inhabit the space in my own mind. Pennac, however, has made me better realize the value in reading aloud.

The teacher’s voice has certainly helped: by sparing them the slog of code breaking, by making situations clear, establishing the setting, stressing themes, accentuating nuances, in short, by developing the photograph as cleanly as possible. (111)

I shall take a moment here to note that Quentin Blake’s illustrations are especially apt for this book, as they will likely take many readers back to childhoods spent reading Dahl or other classics.

Part Three is the actual ‘list of rights’, which takes up only 26 pages, or about a 16% of the book. If that’s the only aspect of this book that intrigues you, remember #8 The Right to Dip In, and go ahead and read just this final part. Though Pennac seems to have written this book as a guide for how not to douse a young person’s love of reading, this could be a valuable read for book bloggers. For those who feel undesired pressure when it comes to reading, for those who have lost some of the joy they used to find in the act, for those who wonder why reading seems different now than it did before blogging. You may take comfort in Pennac’s words.

The question isn’t whether I have time to read or not (time that nobody will ever give me, by the way), but whether I’ll allow myself the pleasure of being a reader. (116)

The above point hit me hard. I believe this is my biggest issue when it comes to reading. I do have a lot of time to read! But something often holds me back. I’m not sure Pennac meant the statement quite so literally. However…it’s like some little niggling voice in the back of my head tells me “Oh, you enjoy reading so much, you should savour it!” Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, really! There are so many wonderful books out there, I’ll never deplete them all. For some books, I do worry about that, though. I like to read The Lord of the Rings every year. It’s such an expansive work, you’d think I wouldn’t have to worry about ‘exhausting’ the wonder it holds for me. Yet I do, and that’s why I’ve only read 40 pages with a month left in the year. That’s also why I’ve never read The Silmarillion. I don’t want to ‘waste’ that experience of reading it for the first time. Bollocks, though, hey. This is something I think I should work on in 2016. I need to remind myself that I deserve the enjoyment of reading. I don’t need to sit around wasting time on Twitter and Feedly because reading is too pleasant. I should be able to pick up a book at any moment, without worrying about only having time for a few pages or not being comfortable or not feeling like thinking critically. I need to gain back my ability to delve into that act of true enjoyment that I love so much.

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended for those who ever loved to read or for those who wish to raise life-long readers.