Monday, September 24, 2012

Of Readers and their Rights

For those of us who work from home, Facebook is the sort of space that gives us the feeling that we don’t. It’s like the office canteen: we go there to see who is ‘wearing’ what today; we smile at how pretentious our colleagues are; and we flaunt our flashy new phones, pens, cars, cats and children’s first prizes. It’s the 15-minutes-in-the-sun that Andy Warhol promised us — outside of TV.

And every now and then, things of beauty and innate value pop up on Facebook. For stay-at-home folk like me (and people who have poor social networking skills in the real world) it’s a window into the magic which happens elsewhere, in the Otherworlds of art and technology. Thanks to Facebook shares, I’ve seen lots of lovely films, art, craft, writing – and cakes! One of the nicest finds recently has been a 20-year-old book called The Rights Of A Reader by Daniel Pennac. A friend shared a link to the promotional poster of the book drawn by Quentin Blake. The title was intriguing. Whoever heard of rights for readers? Weren’t we the supremely privileged and entitled ones? I ordered the book to find out.

A writer of children’s books, Pennac is also a parent and a teacher. And The Rights… grew from his experience of trying to inspire a bunch of not-so-bright teenagers in an under-privileged inner-city school to read. Pennac examines three fundamental issues: how much small children love hearing stories; how wonderful it is when they discover they can put letters together and actually read; and how, between parents and schools, adults push kids away from books in the years that follow.

Pennac’s tip for getting kids to read is simple: read to them. If you are a reader, chances are someone read to you when you were small. This is instinctive with most parents. Present reading to the child as an engaging activity that you love, and the child will grow to love it too. I know this is true because my mom patiently read to me till the day I took the book out of her hands.

There are habits that foster reading — we all evolve these instinctively for ourselves as readers. Pennac calls these ‘reader’s rights’. It’s just that when we become parents and teachers, we forget them — or we think of them as ‘bad habits’ and disallow them. But short cuts are fine. Really. And who're we kidding? We all take them.

Readers, for instance, have the right to skip pages. We all do this, but not many of us like our kids doing so. Also, readers have the right to not read and the right to read anything – anywhere. Even Archie comics while sitting on the pot.

There are many parental habits vis-à-vis reading that Pennac disapproves of. Monitoring children’s reading is one, as is the need to test kids and ask them to ‘describe’ what they just read. I’m guilty of both. Because I want to be a part of her life, I often ask my daughter what happened in the book she just read. She loves telling me about them on some days, and on others, she does not, probably because as Pennac observes, ‘Reading is a retreat into silence… it is about sharing, but a deferred and fiercely selective kind of sharing’.

I love my kid reading Horrid Henry, Judy Moody and Junie B Jones, Archies and Amar Chitra Kathas and Goosebumps. I never insist on ‘the classics’ or even Enid Blyton. But she wants to read Harry Potter — which her father and I think is too emotionally sophisticated for her. Growing up, our parents never ‘curated’ our reading. I find it odd that we should so instinctively want to control hers. I read James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Sidney Sheldon alongside the classics — one kind of book only sharpening my appreciation of the other.

To some of us reading is a special kind of oxygen. We need it. Others don’t. As parents and educators, our job is simply to help create an atmosphere where all knowledge is embraced — and if that knowledge comes from a book, so be it. We need to make our kids literate of course, but whether they grow up to become readers or not is their choice. As Pennac reminds us, ‘while it’s fine for someone to reject reading, it’s totally unacceptable that they should be – or feel that they have been – rejected by reading. To be be excluded from books, even the ones you can do without, is terribly sad: a solitude within a solitude.’ Wise words indeed!

This post first appeared in the DNA of June 10, 2012.