The Rights of the Reader

“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.” Daniel Pennoc.

A note from my pal, Lewis Buzbee, alerted me to a book he figured was right up my alley.

Here’s the summary from Indiebound:

First published in 1992 and even more relevant now, Daniel Pennac’s quirky ode to reading has sold more than a million copies in his native France. Drawing on his experiences as a child, a parent, and an inner-city teacher in Paris, the author reflects on the power of story and reminds us of our right to read anything, anywhere, anytime, so long as we are enjoying ourselves. In a new translation with a foreword and illustrations by Quentin Blake, here is a guide to reading unlike any other: fresh, sympathetic, and never didactic, it is a work of literature in its own right.

It was one of those reading experiences I took slow. A book, translated by Sarah Adams and marvelously illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, that could be polished off in a single sitting — There! Did it! What’s next?! — but one I stretched out across several weeks, better to let it sink, like a stone slowly settling in thick liquid. My copy a mess, filled with marginal notes, underlines, stars, circles, asterisks.

The chapters are short, poetic, slowly building upon a thesis the way sedimentary rock accumulates over time. You almost don’t notice that it’s headed in any particular direction. The concerns of the book are straightforward: We love to read as children, we love to be read to, and yet over time that love for many of us seems to fall away. We stop reading, fatigued by it all. Why?

What is it that we do, as a society, as educators, as parents, to suck the pleasure out of reading?

Pennac takes us through the life stages of a reader, from infancy (when we associate reading with intimacy, warmth, love) to high school (when reading matters, it becomes important, dogged, unhappy — and there will be a test!). Yes, Pennac (and Blake) have issues with the withering effect of accountability, the administrative need to measure and test.

Blake writes about education — standards and craven accountability — in the book’s introduction. And I think he nails it right here:

The French version of this is a rather dry respect for arts and letters. In the U.K., and, as I understand it, in the U.S. as well, one senses not so much a respect for the subject as an urge to convert an elusive entity into something that can be tested. Am I just imagining it, or is there, behind all the tests and targets, a sort of fear of the rich, fluid diversity of the material — a fear, perhaps, among those who want to be in control at many levels of art and educational administration, that they cannot actually see or feel the substance they have put themselves in charge of? How satisfying, by contrast, the reassurance of a well-checked box.

Also by contrast, here’s Chapter Eleven in its entirety:

The book isn’t prescriptive, beyond a reminder of the importance of reading aloud, reading for pleasure. Instead, it’s a good read for anyone interested in books, and reading, and education. Anyone who cares about children, who believes in the value of reading. It’s a book that asks questions, challenges old assertions, and makes you think.

Here’s links to a couple of reviews: Miss Remmers’ Review, a more critical look by Nathalie Foy, and finally, Josh Lacey of The Guardian.

Pennac concludes with 10 “Rights of the Reader.”


1. The Right Not to Read.

2. The Right to Skip.

3. The Right Not to Finish a Book.

4. The Right to Read It Again.

5. The Right to Read Anything.

6. The Right to Mistake a Book for Real Life.

7. The Right to Read Anywhere.

8. The Right to Dip In.

9. The Right to Read Out Loud.

10. The Right to Be Quiet.

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