Sunday, September 13, 2009
Exercising My Rights
A bill of rights is a formal summary of those rights and liberties considered essential to a people or group of people. Daniel Pennac in Better Than Life (1996), his wonderful book about reading, lists the rights of readers. Pennac's primary concern is with instilling a love of reading in children, but I think his list is important to any reader. These are rights I consider only slightly less important than those guaranteed to me by the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. I exercise these rights freely, and I will defend them fiercely.
1. The right to not read any book.
I have the right to not read any author’s works, any subgenre, or any particular book that I find poorly written, offensive, boring, or just not to my tastes. I don’t read vampire books, scary thrillers, or erotica. I see my choice as a matter of personal taste, not a reflection of my intelligence or morality. There are also particular writers whose books I don’t read. It’s my dime and my time invested in the act of reading. I’m entitled to exercise my autonomy. I may be puzzled by your inability to appreciate the books I love, but I respect your autonomy too.
2. The right to skip pages.
I usually begin a book by skipping pages because I read the end first. Family members and friends look at me askance when I admit to this habit, but I’m not interested in the journey if the destination is wrong. I often skim or skip altogether scenes of graphic violence in romantic suspense. I also skip sex scenes that seem to me gratuitous, mechanical, or deep purple.
3. The right to not finish.
For years I felt that if I started a book, I had to finish it. No more. Now I rejoice in my right to give a book up at any point. Sometimes I read one page and know it’s not for me; sometimes I read a hundred pages or more before the book becomes a DNF. Occasionally I return to a DNF book and find that my mood or tastes have changed, but more often the DNF is just not my cup of tea.
4. The right to reread.
How often did you reread your childhood favorites? I’ve never known a child who did not reread. I’ve just never given up the habit. The major criterion I use to separate keepers from just books I enjoyed is whether the book is worth a reread. Rereading is like visiting old friends; it is warming, reassuring, and constant. I even have a reread shelf because often a passing reference to a book in conversation, real or virtual, or a connection in a new book to something I’ve read previously makes me long to return to the world of a particular book.
5. The right to read anything.
I read romance (single-title and category, historical and contemporary, sweet and sizzling), mystery, women’s fiction, literary fiction, history, memoir, poetry, and anything else that captures my fancy. My choices are unaffected by the prejudices of those who attach adjectives like “trashy,” and “esoteric” to my chosen reading material.
6. The right to escapism.
Some books I read to be confronted with realities beyond my own experience—the insanity of war, the grimness of real poverty, the suffering of the powerless. Sometimes I read to escape the disappointment, the heartbreak, or just the sameness of my own life. The right to escape is every bit as precious and necessary as the right to discover.
7. The right to read anywhere.
I live in a book-filled world. I have books in every room of my house, in my car, and in my purse. I read while I drink my morning coffee, when I have a solitary lunch, before I fall asleep at night. I read when I wait in my doctor’s office, when I stand in line at the grocery store, and when I get caught in traffic. So long as my reading endangers no one, I read anywhere.
8. The right to browse.
I am constitutionally unable to pass books without browsing. I go to the library or bookstore to pick up one book, and I examine a dozen or more, sampling pages. A quick trip to the grocery store is extended by fifteen minutes because I have to take time to browse the book section. Having dinner at a friend’s, I pick up a paperback from an end table and riffle through the pages.
9. The right to read out loud.
I love to read out loud. I grew up with a book-loving mother who not only read to her children when they were small but who also was wont to exclaim “Just listen to this” just before she read her adult children a passage from a current read that had struck her with its beauty, insight, or humor. I find myself doing the same thing. I am also a poet, and not surprisingly I relish the feel of the word in my mouth, its fall against my ear. When a prose passage I write seems wrong and I can’t find the problem, I read it aloud. I find the ear is often a better critic than the eye.
10. The right not to defend your tastes.
The summer I turned ten was a defining period in my life as a reader. That summer I discovered Emilie Loring and Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and ever since the canonical and the popular have filled my bookshelves and peppered my conversation. I read Proust and Putney and see no need to defend any of my choices.
Have you ever thought about a reader’s rights? Are there others you think should be added to Pennac’s list?