This post is not so much a review of the above book, but an exploration of the themes and ideas which are touched on by the author. Daniel Pennac is a French author, teacher and parent who writes with clarity and wit on the subject of literacy and how to encourage children to read more. He has worked with many disadvantaged children in inner-city schools in Paris and has a rather novel (excuse the lame pun) approach to the challenge of supporting and encouraging kids to engage with literature.
Why is this so important? Why is it so vital that children learn to read – and learn to love reading? Pennac spends a considerable portion of the book ripping into the old cliché of children nowadays being much more interested in watching television or playing computer games than reading and how it’s all the fault of the media, or our consumerist society which prioritises products over culture, or the innumerable flaws in the education system…
Below is an extract from a fictional conversation that Pennac describes – I imagine this taking place among a group of middle-class, middle-aged parents.
“It’s not just the programmes, it’s the medium itself. It’s passive. It makes the viewer lazy.”
“But reading is different, reading is something you do.”
“But with TV, and cinema for that matter, everything’s handed to you on a plate, nothing has to be worked at, they just spoon-feed you.”
As an avid reader myself, I know I would have automatically subscribed to this viewpoint too – particularly because I am the sort of person who would actually rather read a 1,000 word article about something than watch a two-minute video on the same topic. I have no idea why I should have this odd prejudice – although actually, viewing it now through the lens of this book, I think I’m beginning to understand…
Anyway. Later in the book, Pennac suggests that actually, TV and film can make you think and feel and dream in the same way that a book can –
“…And (he) wonders if some films haven’t, in fact, made the kind of impression on him that books have. Images from these films seem to him loaded with symbolic language. Of course he’s no expert. But he could see, with his own eyes, that the meaning of these images would never be exhausted, knew that his emotional response to them would be fresh every time.”
So if that is the case and the new and apparently more popular mediums of TV and film are equally engaging and important, why is there so much emphasis placed on Reading? Why do adults bemoan all those hours their kids spend watching TV and playing video games? Is it just the result of cultural snobbery – books are an older medium and therefore automatically have more value and importance? Or is there something qualitatively different about the reading experience?
As far as I can see – and I believe this is what Pennac was trying to explain – the difference between reading and watching something on a screen is that reading can be shared in an incredibly intimate way – namely by one person reading the book out loud to an audience of perhaps one person, maybe more. This act of love (for no one wastes precious time and energy on reading to someone if they don’t truly care for them) is something that many children experience from a very early age. The sheer joy of hearing your favourite stories straight from the lips of a loving parent (or carer) and knowing that this time is just for you and them is what creates that atmosphere of intimacy which makes bedtime stories so special. And, as Pennac so beautifully puts it, stories give us freedom. They provide us with a respite, however brief, from our daily struggles and allow us to escape for a short time into another world. Through reading, we liberate the characters on the page and allow them to live out their lives in our heads. And in turn, we ourselves are set free. Children need this outlet just as much as adults do – particularly when they start school and are faced with the quite staggering challenge of learning the Three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – along with making friends and obeying school rules and all the other trials and tribulations involved with their absorption into the educational system. And that’s even before mentioning such problems as marital discord, sibling disputes or illness.
Of course, one could argue that films and TV also act as a form of escapism and they would be perfectly right to do so. We must look a bit closer at the act of reading itself to explain why reading a book is slightly different. As Pennac observes:
“…Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”
We can discuss the books we’ve read with others, we can read extracts out, or even the whole book, if we choose. But the connection between the reader and the author is ultimately very private and personal. Reading is an activity that requires solitude and the time to build that relationship with the author, to enter the world they have built for you and explore it fully.
“Time to read is always time stolen….from what? From the tyranny of living.”
So why do some people find reading so difficult? One might as well ask why anyone might find it difficult to read something. No matter how voracious a reader you might be, you will still encounter books that are too long, too dull, too intellectual, too silly – books that, for whatever reason, failed to grab your attention. Books that seemed too confusing or books that you were afraid to even try because they seemed far too complicated and difficult. The fear of not understanding is a huge barrier to reading. And, as Pennac so astutely observes, books are looooooooooooooong. They have so many pages, so densely packed with words and that mass of black marks on white paper stretching endlessly away can be completely overwhelming, especially for those who may not be quite so confident in their reading skills.
When does reading become a burden, something unrewarding and unfulfilling? Perhaps when the bedtime story becomes a chore for parents who (quite naturally) want those precious minutes back at the end of the day or maybe when children – who were initially thrilled with the independence that learning to read gave them – start to feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of effort it now takes for them to absorb a story on their own, without help or guidance. It might be that literacy was not particularly well taught in their school, or by their teacher. Possibly they didn’t receive any reading support at home from parents or carers…they might even be dyslexic or have another form of learning difficulty.
So how do we help people fall in love with reading again when they have become so disillusioned – betrayed, even, by the written word? Daniel Pennac suggests that the key to helping children to read is to awaken the desire to read, but admits that this may not necessarily solve all problems. His method, when working with teenagers who are perceived as “failures” and have, for whatever reasons, not attained the results expected of them, is to read aloud to them. He insists that presenting books like this – not watered down, abridged or even given much in the way of introduction – just letting them experience the books as they were written, letting the story unfold naturally, waiting for that curiosity to awaken inside them – what happens next, who are these people, when is the story set? He perceives the teacher’s role as that of matchmaker, gently introducing his students to literature, showing them its joys and wonders and then watching and waiting while they slowly fall in love with reading again and race to finish the book themselves before the teacher has got to the end of it in class. I’m not sure how easy this would be for most teachers to implement – as Pennac himself says, there is a certain skill in reading aloud, of not putting too much of yourself in the reading and just letting the author’s voice shine through in the way you say the words. Facial expression, tone and enunciation are all very important when reading aloud – it isn’t acting, exactly, but something close to it. In order to “make a gift of your treasures” you need to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the story and the characters – and be able to convey that with passion and enthusiasm to a class of perhaps twenty or thirty students. No easy task.
But the magic that he describes when it does happen, when the connection is made, something clicks and the students really do fall in love with reading again – that, I can imagine, makes every little bit of effort all worthwhile.
However, as Pennac points out, it is important above all to remember that everyone has the right to NOT read. And if someone chooses not to read, this does not make them any less intelligent or compassionate than those who love reading. When a particular activity is held up as somehow more morally right and as having more worth than another activity, inevitably the joy and delight in that activity will diminish (particularly among those who want to be seen as cool and rebellious). The most important thing is that people are free to choose whether or not to read. The worst-case scenario is not someone deciding that they can live without books. It is someone being isolated from books because they have never been given the opportunity to fall in love with reading.