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?

6 comments:

Melissa Schroeder said...

I LOVE these. I reread constantly and have actually started buying my favs in digital because some of those books are falling apart.
And, I had the same kind of mother. I actually have a pillow that says "Richer than me you will never be because my mother read to me." I did the same thing with my kids too:)

Wanderer said...

Awesome list!

#3 The Right to Not Finish is one I only recently started following. When I was younger I was adamant to finish any book I started. At times it was torture but I felt like I HAD to or the book boogie man would get me. j/k

It wasn't til I got older and realized just how many books were out there and available to me and how little reading time I had in a day that I figured, screw this. If I'm not into it after a few chapters it goes to the library or resold on ebay/half.com.

#2 The right to skip pages - I do this a lot in books I find too wordy or find have some other annoying aspect of the writing. However, I never read the ending first. I know a lot of people that do and I know I could never do it. If I know what happens at the end, that's the end of the book for me.

Thanks for putting this together :)

TerriOsburn said...

I can't think of anything else to add to this list, but I stand behind all of these. Only in the last few years have I started putting books down. And I admit, I'm not a page skipper. Not yet anyway. If I'm going to read, I'm going to read all the pages. Maybe the day will come when I'll skip things, but not yet.

No one read to me when I was little, but I did read to my daughter. She does love books, but she still loves television more. We really need to work on that.

quantum said...

Janga, I like the writers ten rights. Nothing to add but I can suggest a couple of amendments *grin*

I hope you don't apply the 2nd right to mystery novels. Reading the end first would be cheating, and I know you could never do that. Perhaps mystery could be an amendment or exception. *grin*

I apply right 3 all the time. Its easy as an ebook reader. When I find another porn book disguised as romance I just shred it with one click. It pleases me to assign the author to oblivion before I forget.

A few years ago I would have disagreed with the 4th right. Why would I waste time re-reading when there is so much wonderful literature that I haven't yet tried. But recently I have begun reading stories to my Grand. I have discovered the joy that I have been missing. Though actually it may be correlated with the squeals of delight emanating (from my grand daughter!) as I simulate Mr Toad beeping the hooter on his car!

Absolutely agree with right 5. Can't fault or amend it.

I also agree with rule 6. and I'm usually an argumentative fellow *grin*
Escapist literature with a glass of suitable lubricant is a great way to relax after a tiring day.

I like right 7 but don't implement it on public transport unless I am listening to audio. Its the covers that sometimes embarrass. You probably know the feeling!

Agree with 8. I can spend many happy hours browsing in second hand book stores. Its the very old books that fascinate most and I love to get my hands on a leather bound early edition say by William Morris.

Now I must disagree with 9. There is nothing worse than having ones concentration broken by someone talking loudly. I have been known to wear ear plugs in desperation. When I want to read my own work aloud I use text to speech software and listen with head phones.

Absolutely agree with 10. I have both Shweber's 'relativistic quantum field theory' and Eloisa James on my current reading shelf.

MsHellion said...

I love this Readers Bill of Right. Right on, sister!

I do all of these...okay, I get defensive if you mock my tastes, then stomp off in a huff--which is not what #10 is. I think you're just supposed to nod and think, "Whatever" and go about your day. It's difficult for me not to take it personally.

And if you tell me my taste in books is tacky, it's on. *LOL*

irisheyes said...

Love it! What an awesome list.

I think you pretty much covered it all. I can't think of any to add.

I had a real problem with #1-#3 for the longest time (I believe that to be my Catholic guilt-ridden upbringing rearing its ugly head LOL).

#1 and #10 are kind of related for me. It had more to do with my perception of myself than anything else. I needed to stop feeling guilty that I wasn't reading the latest gut-wrenching, award winning, completely depressing, but popular #1 bestseller that everyone was raving about. I needed to give myself permission to read what I loved and not measure my worth or intelligence by other's perceptions.

#2 and #3 I would have considered a big no-no. You read every page and never stopped until you were finished. Kind of like finishing all the food on your plate when you were a kid. Well, I don't do that anymore, either. LOL My time is just too valuable to waste these days and I won't finish a book if it's just not there for me. I also find myself skimming, especially if the passage is excessively violent or gratuitous. Some images I really don't need to have imprinted on my brain for all eternity.

I love to reread and think it's funny that people look askance at that. To me it's no different than watching your favorite movie over and over and over again. In fact, more often than not the book improves the more I reread it. It's surprising how much more you can take away on a second or third reading. I also find it very enjoyable to read a whole series together once I have the whole set. That takes years sometimes!

Here! Here! on the right to escape. That's a big one. How many times have we heard about people getting through truly tragic circumstances in their own lives by diving into a good book?!