French and English-language editions of Daniel Pennac's "Reads Like a Novel"

Besides the art of reading, we should celebrate the art of not reading.

We live in a world not of ideal readers but of real readers. As in the imperfect reader. The impatient reader. The lazy reader. The kind of person who will skip or speed-read this article and leave a silly comment at the bottom anyway (no offence). The sort of reader who will groan while reaching for the dictionary because the author has used a deliberately obscure, arcane, abstruse word to show off. The type of reader who will type book reviews on Amazon along the lines of:

Bloody disappointed with this book. Its condition was described as ‘Almost new’ but it arrived with a big black remainder mark on the opening page that completely ruined the reading experience and wasn’t mentioned in the description. That’s why I’m giving Mel Healy’s Black Marigolds only one star. AND I never finished it.

And why should they? We are surrounded by books that are never finished or never begun. In Ned Kelly’s immortal final words, “Such is life.”

The imperfect reader lives in a world where life is short, the “signal to noise” ratio is way too low, the cat needs feeding, the basil plant has died, there’s a new box set to binge-watch, and there are so many new titles published each year that the EU is about to set up a Books Mountain (next to the Wine Lake).

Daniel Pennac

I’m talking about the kind of real-life reader who will nod his or her head in agreement while reading – or not even bothering to read – the “Reader’s Bill of Rights” towards the end of Daniel Pennac’s unusual book of contemplations, Reads Like a Novel (Comme Un Roman in the original French), and say “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

These 10 inalienable rights are nothing less than a rallying call, a manifesto, a party programme for the Readers’ Liberation Front, which has a highly active paramilitary wing but that’s another story. In short, you have…

  1. The right not to read
  2. The right to skip pages
  3. The right not to finish a book
  4. The right to re-read
  5. The right to read anything
  6. The right to “bovarysme” *
  7. The right to read anywhere
  8. The right to browse
  9. The right to read out loud
  10. The right to remain silent **

(* escapism)

(** i.e. silent about what you’ve been reading and what you think of it – rather than something to do with a grilling in a cop shop)

Some readers will be tempted to add their own eleventh rule because they have their own habits and proclivities, or perhaps they’ve had enough of the listomania currently in fashion that demands a list should always be in “neat” multiples of fives, tens or twenties. My 11th rule is a bit long, but here goes…

11. The right to underline passages with a pencil / biro / highlighter, to correct the publisher’s typos, to scribble comments in the margins and notes at the back (all so long as one is the book’s owner, of course), to add Post-It notes and other improvised bookmarks, to write your name on the front flyleaf (OK, you haven’t done that since school), to crease a new paperback’s spine like a spatchcock chicken for easier reading, to dog-ear page corners using a unique personal system (fold the top of the page for where you are, the bottom of the page for a passage you’d like to return to), to judge a book by its cover or by a daft review on Goodreads, to have wine stains and coffee rings on the cover, to have pages distorted by bathwater, to press freshly plucked flowers between the pages, to give out yards about crime thrillers that have “Girl” in their title (even though the character in question is a grown adult) and, last but not least, the right to voice strong opinions on books one has never even started yet and probably never will.

Reads Like a Novel is a beautifully thoughtful, well written (and translated) extended essay. After being bowled over by it I sought out other books by Daniel Pennac – two of his crime novels. And I have a confession.

No, not a confession (enough of that reader guilt-trip stuff, remember?). A declaration.

I gave up the first one after just a couple of chapters, and never started the second.