A Bill of Rights
The French writer Daniel Pennac is something of a trickster, a rare breed in his native country where writers are often afflicted with terminal gravitas. Example: this dedication he wrote on the title page of his novel Le Dictateur et le hamac. He drew two stick figures struggling under the weight of an enormous fountain pen as they trudge along, carrying their burden on their backs. One character addresses the other: “David, what does literature lead to?” The other responds, “Who knows?” When you draw back from the charming little sketch, you see that the two characters are heading for a cliff and a sheer drop into thin air…
Then there’s his theatrical text called Merci. A monologue of kinds, in which a writer attempts to thank his public for a prize he has just won – without being able to find the words.
Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights is more pranksterism, and as usual, his joking is deadly serious. The Bill first appeared in 1995, on the back cover of Better than Life (Coach House Press, now apparently out of print), my translation of his book about reading called Comme un roman. The book is really a love story between readers and books, and I recommend it to any parent worried about their children’s apparent disinterest in reading. (I say “apparent” because I read on the sly when I was a kid to keep from giving my parents the satisfaction of seeing me read.) Like all love affairs, a certain amount of freedom is necessary. That’s where Pennac’s shifty genius enters. The first right in his Bill of Rights is the right to not read. Yes, that – from a writer who worked for years in a lycée in Paris (more or less the equivalent of a Cégep here). The idea is that writing is a choice, not an obligation, and therefore a person can choose not to read, or not to read right now.
The other innovation is the right to skip pages, something I think many of us do without necessarily admitting to that little sin. Well, it’s a sin no more. The opening of Moby Dick might be one of the greatest launches of a novel that I know, but do we really want to read so much about whaling techniques? So let’s just jump over that part… Because not everything in a book holds our attention equally. Even more surprising is that this author, Daniel Pennac, is also giving us the right not to finish a book (right #3). Go ahead, he urges us, if the book is letting you down, then put it down and turn to something else. There is no special honor is finishing a volume that has lost its appeal.
Of course he knows he is subjecting himself to the same treatment. If there is a Reader’s Bill of Rights, then all writers are covered by it – including Pennac himself. He’s not trying to take the easy way out.
The ninth of his ten rights is the right to read out loud. This is a little-practiced art. I tell everyone who will listen, and even those who won’t, to read their writing out loud. And other people’s writing too. There is an enormous amount to be learned about writing by reading out loud. So start today…