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. 

Brief Thoughts: The Riddles of the Hobbit and Bone Gap

Another quick review post already? Hrm, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve read a book I could really sink into. My dad and sister’s visit disrupted my habit, and now things are starting to get hectic around here since I’ve only got a couple months left before I move back home! I’m cramming my weekends full with trips and my weekdays full with planning those trips 😛 I’ve been reading, but obviously not blogging much so I’m trying to clear out some backlog with these quick review brief thoughts posts (re-naming theses posts because I think ‘brief thoughts’ is a better descriptor).

  • The Riddles of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • There are some solidly interesting points in Roberts’ book that could have made for a nic essay. As it stands, I found there was too much rambling and wandering from the topic of ‘riddles in The Hobbit‘. I often found myself thinking, “What does this have to do with anything?” I do enjoy an interesting tangent, even if only semi-related, but this was pushing it for me. 
    • Some of Robert’s arguments are extremely stretched beyond what’s really conceivable, but that’s part of the fun. You can really disprove anything he says, so why not come at it from a creative angle? 
    • Final evaluation – some parts of value, some parts of fluff. Difficult to recommend one way or the other.
  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • Another book I accidentally read in an evening!
    • This one fell short of the hype for me, in a similar manner that Salt & Storm did (though I found this book more ‘blah’) – I was hoping for a more mystical, surreal tale. The touches of magical realism that were there weren’t enough to feed my appetite for the stuff. There are some interesting components, but Roza’s story fell flat for me, and that’s the central part of the book.

Review: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology by Simon Cook

Author: Simon Cook 
Format/Source: eBook/Author
Published: October 2014
Publisher: Ye Machine
Length: 49 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: Enjoyed Cook’s article on Tolkien fundamentalism
Read If You’re: A Tolkien fan, esp. one interested in how his mythology connects to English history
Quote: “Thus the two traditions of Ing identified by Chadwick are, for the first time in Tolkien’s writings, seamlessly integrated” (74%).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Back in the spring, Simon Cook published a short article, “On Tolkien Fundamentalism“,  at Tolkien Library. I enjoyed the article and posted a response, which Cook commented on. I was happy to engage in discussion, and so I was also happy accept an invitation to review his recently published essay, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology”.  The essay explores “how The Lord of the Rings arose as a conjectural reconstruction of the lost mythology of the English” (9%). Cook explores H.M. Chadwick’s understanding of ancient English history and how Tolkien’s mythology responds to those theories.

Until about 60% of the way through, I wondered what evidence exists to show Tolkien was very familiar with Chadwick, as I had not heard of him before. Early on, Cook notes that Tolkien would have studied Chadwick during his undergrad (24%), but given the extent of Cook’s discussion I expected more evidence of Tolkien’s engagement with Chadwick. Cook eventually points to the lecture notes published alongside Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf earlier this year (which I have not yet read) that demonstrate Tolkien’s familiarity with Chadwick (63%). So, if you’re like me and wondering if Cook’s argument has a solid foundation – it does! 

I was cautioned that the essay might be a tough read due to its scholarly nature. Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge for me – not quite because of its nature but because of its content. I think I may have got more out of the essay were I familiar with Chadwick’s work. This essay was my first encounter with him, though I am sure now it will not be my last. Regardless, I enjoyed the reading and feeling my brain working hard (it has missed critical thinking since I finished university). I made many highlights and notes to make sure I could keep on top of everything. A lot of groundwork is laid before reaching the final segment, “The Lord of the Rings”, in which Cook demonstrates how the central characters of that story relate back to the ancient English history about which Chadwick theorized. Following along carefully, I understood and appreciated Cook’s analysis and conclusion – what Chadwick argued, where Tolkien disagreed with him, and how the ancient stories influenced Tolkien’s mythology. The bulk of the essay was a lot of new information for me, but I had an “Aha!” moment of understanding as Cook tied everything together towards the end.  Cook successfully argues how (and why) Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for lost English mythology, partially in response to the ancient English ideas of Chadwick.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of little Englanders who depart their rustic homes in order to explore a wider, perilous world of ancient English tradition. (12%)

At the very heart of [Tolkien’s] project stands the passionate conviction that the stories of the ancient English could spark imaginative delight in the hearts and minds of a modern audience. (84%)

Part way through reading, I made a note – “it’s exciting to consider Tolkien in new ways (possibly not just me this time?)”, meaning I think there are fresh ideas here even for a more well-read Tolkien enthusiast than I. That Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for the mythology England ‘lost’ is part of the reason his work is so fascinating to me. It’s fiction, yes, but the historical roots make it so much more real.  This is an aspect of Tolkien’s work I really enjoy and I liked reading more about this connection between the mythology and English history. There is always so much to read about Tolkien’s mythology, I have trouble focusing on one topic, but this is an area I would love to delve into further one day. Of course, it might be helpful if I acquaint myself a bit further with English history… (that 6 credit course on the history of the English language can only get me so far).

The Bottom Line: For those unfamiliar with Chadwick, this essay may take some work to get through. I would like to read a bit more from Chadwick and then return to this essay. But, if you’re interested in how Tolkien’s mythology relates to English history, definitely give it a read.

Further Reading: 

Review: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
Author: Corey Olsen  
Title: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: September 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: The Hobbit is one of my all-time favourite books + I enjoy reading Tolkien scholarship
Read If You’re: A new fans of The Hobbit; interested in literary analysis
Quote: “Even when [Bilbo] himself is facing the possibility of being devoured, the ‘idea of eating’ that is on his mind is a very positive one” (94).
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsIndieBound | Chapters | Amazon 
Two Tolkien posts in a row! I promise this isn’t just a Tolkien blog. I wanted to post my responses to those two articles while they were fresh in my mind, and then this is the only book I’ve read recently for which I have a full review planned. Now, onto the inaugural review of the reborn Falling Letters.

I added this book to my TBR list shortly after it was published, but I wasn’t eager to read it because it seemed to be an introductory text exploring themes in The Hobbit with which I am already familiar. This is not to say I didn’t think the text had anything to offer (otherwise I wouldn’t have put it on my TBR list), but after reading The History of the Hobbit in the same year this book was published, I felt I had enough Hobbit knowledge in my head for one year. In his introduction, Olsen describes how his love of Tolkien developed and became integrated into his academic work. He describes people who “get nervous at the prospect of a literary critic discussing a work they love”, because they’ve “had unpleasant experiences in high school English classes” (4). He assures the reader he will not take the same approach found in such classes (drawing inferences from the text as to what Tolkien really meant, judging passages as good or bad, etc.). He writes of his book:

“…we will take a journey through the story, looking carefully about us as we go. It is easy to rip through a book that you like at top speed; the main thing I hope to do is to slow things down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go. We will take notice of the recurring themes and images […] We will listen closely to all the songs and poems […] If we walk slowly and pay attention, we may find that our perspective is enriched by the journey as much as Bilbo’s was, and that our eyes have been opened to marvels we never expect to see.” (5).

This paragraph made me more interested in the book than anything else I had read about it – I definitely know how it’s easy to rip through a favourite book! I read The Hobbit more often than any other book. I could benefit from a slowed down, close reading. That is largely what the book is – a close reading of The Hobbit. Olsen makes minimal references to Tolkien’s thoughts or works beyond The Hobbit. I thought it interesting that he chose to explicitly not discuss The Hobbit with any close relation to The Lord of the Rings, particularly given the release of The Hobbit films which are being brought more closely in line with The Lord of the Rings films. The publication of Olsen’s book likely connects to the release of The Hobbit films, as interest in books on which movies are based always surges when said movie is released. But, this is not a negative observation – The Hobbit is a fantastic work considered by itself. I don’t think it always needs to be placed within a greater context and it’s refreshing to read something focused solely on the tale I love.

 If you have read The Hobbit many times, you might not find a lot of new ideas here. HOWEVER! A major exception is the analysis of songs and poetry. I confess, I tend to gloss over songs and poetry whenever they appear in a novel, however crucial to the story they may be. I do this less with The Hobbit, where the songs are of a different nature than those found in The Lord of the Rings, but I still plead guilty to not fully paying attention to what the songs contribute to the story. Where Olsen’s text excels for me is in his exploration of the songs. John D. Rateliff’s quote on the back of the book accurately praises, “[Olsen is] particularly good at pointing out how Tolkien uses poems as characterization”. I suspect I am not the only adorer of The Hobbit who prefers to bypass songs and poems. Olsen has chosen an excellent area on which to focus.

Additional notes:  I enjoy reading interpretations of the riddle scene. While I thought some of the inferences were a bit stretched, I did like the perspective he took on the whole scene (exploring how the riddles reveal the riddler’s character while also reacting to riddles that had already been presented). The text is not written in a scholarly manner, it’s very accessible, but there were some instances where the use of slang stood out (“street cred” [113] is an extreme example). I’m not sure such language is necessary, even in a relatively informal work.

The Bottom Line: If you are a long time fan of The Hobbit, who appreciates the songs and poems contained within, you might find this book does not have a lot to offer you. But if you are a newer fan of The Hobbit, or you wonder what the point is of all the songs and poetry, or you just plain enjoy close readings, I recommend this book.