Friday, 16 October 2009

The rights of the reader: Review

Image credit: Here

The Rights of the Reader
By Daniel Pennac (Trans. Sarah Adams)
Published October 2006
Walker Books Limited

Cast your mind back. You're seven years old and you've just got your very own library card. Surrounded by silence and the smell of words and promised adventures, you run giddily towards the children's section. You run your hand over the shelves of books, some smooth, some bumpy, all tagged with some weird and unfathomable code. Before you know it, you've picked up something that has caught your attention and you've settled into the bright red beanbag for the long haul. You forget where you are, consumed by the voices and exploits of Asterix or the Famous Five and you can't believe it's time to go already when, an hour later, your Mum comes round the corner to find you.

Every week you come back and you always leave with a pile of books, one of which you're usually half way through by the time you get home. The need to read consumes you: you sneak off to the toilet to get in a few pages, you read late at night with a torch under the bedcovers. You are, in fact, a veritable addict, looking feverishly along the shelves to find your next hit.

Then, somewhere along the line, something happens. Reading loses some of the joy it once held - it becomes, unthinkably, a chore. A task that has to be completed by next Monday, with an 800 word essay to boot. High school literature studies have come home to roost. English class is now peering over your shoulder, pointing out that you shouldn't be reading that book, you should read this one, the required text. You know, the one sitting ominously on your desk, unreadable and daunting.

This is where the education system, according to Daniel Pennac, fails our kids. I recently read his amazing book The Rights of the Reader (translated by Sarah Adams) as part of a bookring through Bookcrossing and was very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting something completely different - a fun and lighthearted look at reading as a hobby - but was met with an entertaining and brilliantly written manifesto on the importance of teaching our future generations to love reading and not make it a "should" - a word sure to kill any desire to do something.

Pennac points out that as kids, we loved to hear stories and would beg our parents again and again to read us our favourite books. It is in this tradition of oral storytelling, he argues, that reading is based. It's our desire to hear new stories and follow new heroes on new adventures that drives us from one finished book to the next new one. But as soon as interfere with our child's relationship with books and we disturb the private "alchemist's voice" in their minds, we start to suck their joy out of their reading experience. This, claims Pennac, is a crime of epic proportions. A relationship with books is one of the most consistent and satisfying ones that most people will have in their lives, after all.

The solution? Simple, claims Pennac. Take it back to the basics - oral storytelling. Read to those who have become disenchanted by the hard slog of required textbooks and compulsory reading. Re-introduce that spark. Draw them back in. Before you know it, they'll have rediscovered that "alchemist's voice" and they'll be off in their own private world of books again.

This book was a really fascinating read for me as I recognised that I had suffered a period of book fatigue until pretty recently. As a kid, I was the one hiding under the sheets with a book and a torch. I read an insane amount of books from all sorts of genres, right up until the age of 15 - that's when it started for me. Required reading to be completed within a ridiculously short period of time, essays to write and not to mention maths homework and geography study.... Luckily, I've rediscovered that old spark and have come back to the ranks of the voracious reader - one "right" at a time. If there's anyone out there that has lost their spark, or knows someone who is struggling with reading - I highly recommend this book. It'll surely help you bring them back from the brink of a world without books.


  1. This sounds really interesting! I agree that being forced to read things, especially before possibly being mature enough to understand and appreciate books, is not a good thing! I have ALWAYS loved reading but I despised being made to read certain books in school.

  2. Hi Jenny!

    Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean - although I loved books, being forced to read certain books really killed the love of reading for me for a while. Luckily, it wasn't a permanent death!

  3. I like this. You emailed me about a guest review post and I will be contacting you. Thanks!

  4. Kath, I'm so glad you found me. I have to pick this up (esp. now that I see Quentin Blake has something to do with it).

    Thanks for your kind comments. It really is my pleasure to read with "my" kids.

  5. Bookjourney - thanks! That sounds great!

    Caroline - I know, the timing seems really serendipitous doesn't it?!

    I think you'll really appreciate what Pennac has to say about kids and reading - and of course, the illustrations are just fabulous!

  6. This is like the expert look at the same topic as "Raising A Reader" which you just read about on my blog. I wish I would have had both of them when my daughter was young. My boys are both readers but my daughter not as much.

    I remember having a teacher in 5th & 6th grade that read to us a couple of times a week. It was glorious. That really should continue on into the upper grades when so much of reading is only about learning.

  7. It's on my nightstand! Looking forward to it.

  8. Caroline - awesome news! Let me know what you thought of it when you finish :)