Thursday, March 16, 2006

Early in the fall semester

I checked out a lot of books about reading from the library, I was getting something and there I was in the appealingly labeled Z section (trust librarians to keep a really cool Library of Congress call number for the books most intensely related to their expertise...) and I checked out a lot of other stuff too. I think I had some vague idea I might write an essay about reading.

What I really wanted this evening was some truly light reading, an amazing young-adult fantasy novel for instance, but I couldn't seem to lay hands on anything appropriate (I've been reading Derrida, it's fantastic and enjoyable too but a brain-strain, I needed a bit of down time) so I was picking up and putting down different things and just now I read one of these books about reading.

I wanted to love it, but I didn't. (Possibly what's dawning on me is that I'm not going to agree with any of these books on reading, it is something I have strong opinions about, and will have to give in and write my own at the earliest opportunity--not likely to be particularly soon. However I did really love Victor Nell, and I adore Francis Spufford's book on reading, and I like a lot of other people's stuff too, it's just these philosophical essay-puffed-up-into-a-book things that rub me the wrong way.)

It's called Better Than Life--good title for a book about reading, eh?--by the French novelist Daniel Pennac; interestingly it's been translated by David Homel in a more interventionist way (I assume without having seen the original) than is common, references are to English-language and variously North American things ("the Ivy League," for instance--the edition I have was published in Toronto, anyway) though it was originally written in French. The acknowledgements end with this sentence: "The translator and the publisher thank Daniel Pennac for his permission to adapt certain aspects of this book."

Why I thought I would like it, other than the title: the chapter headings based on "The Reader's Bill of Rights." These are Pennac's rights (ignore mildly annoying split infinitives):

The Right to Not Read
The Right to Skip Pages
The Right to Not Finish a Book
The Right to Re-read
The Right to Read Anything
The Right to Escapism
The Right to Read Anywhere
The Right to Browse
The Right to Read Out Loud
The Right to Not Defend Your Tastes

Only unfortunately instead of it being the lovely defense of light reading I thought it would be, it turned out to be a heavily didactic fable about why children lose their early pleasure in reading and how it must be restored to them by charismatic teachers who, say, read aloud to their disaffected teenage students in a way that reclaims them for passionate reading. Rule-making in the guise of rule-breaking: I suppose the form of his list should have tipped me off.

Pennac's got good judgment about some of this, I guess (his pick for reading aloud to disenchanted teenagers: Patrick Suskind's truly amazing novel Perfume). But he is on the one hand condescending and anti-intellectual and on the other hand deeply elitist and prescriptivist in his tastes. He seems sure that Harlequin novels should lead you to War and Peace--never to look back.

This gives his list of rights a whiff of hypocrisy. Escapist reading is good--so long as it's by Robert Louis Stevenson. Skipping is fine--as long as you're a thirteen-year-old reading War and Peace but read it again when you're a grownup. It's fine not to like Henry James--but when you read him again you will understand why you didn't like him before even as you see and adore his genius. Henry James is amazing, War and Peace is amazing, so is Stevenson: I'm not knocking this guy's tastes (though really I feel I must get the French edition and see what the cultural particulars are that I'm missing! some of them may be the same as here, Stevenson I wouldn't be completely surprised about, but others must have been different...), but I don't like how it always has to lead to something better. Reading can be end-less in the sense of not having a point. Maybe it's not good always to read like that, but sometimes it's just the right thing.

I also of course am particularly annoyed by what seems a reflexive ritual conflation of interpretive reading with dullness. Here is Pennac:

Those of us who read and say we want to spread the love of reading, much of the time we'd rather be commentators, interpreters, analysts, critics, biographers, exegetes of works silences by our pious respect for their greatness. Imprisoned in the fortress of our expertise, the language of books is replaced by our own language. Instead of letting the intelligence of stories speak through us, we turn to our own intelligence and talk for the stories. We have stopped being the messengers of literature, and turned into the fervent guardians of a temple whose miracles we praise with the very words that close its doors. You must read! You must read!

(Yep, he's an unreconstructed romantic. And proud of it. And he quotes Rousseau, and makes the statutory advice about Rousseau's good theory and bad practice of child-rearing.)

Thoughts on this passage, which strikes me as completely dire:

1. I hope nobody ever thinks that I think of myself as the fervent guardian of a temple! How awful....

2. Yet how awful, too, to be a "messenger of literature"! Like some grotesquely sentimental illustration of an angel... I am a messenger of nothing in particular. But I like to think, and I like to read, and I like what happens when I open it up in the company of other people (by writing or by speaking) so that it's not a completely solitary pursuit. I think it is condescending to academics to think there's no way to do this and be interesting at the same time and to students/young people to suggest that they are only brainless consumers and that sheer pleasure in story is the only lure in. (What about, for instance, the love of language, the sound of words and sentences and so on? This doesn't seem to be on Pennac's list of things to worry about.)

3. When I personally say "You must read..." the words always are the introduction to something like "... the most amazing book in the world, you will die of delight when you see how good it is and how perfectly it is what you will love!" (Or perhaps slightly more moderate, but that kind of thing.) I feel this way about lots of books, and the "You" is in each case the particular person I'm talking to, not a general collective you. This distinction seems important. Pennac's "you" is a blurry collective; even his teenagers are stereotyped rather than particular (the Anorexic, the Punks, the Preppy, etc.--perhaps the translator's substitutions again?).

4. And that, finally, is the thing I really didn't like. This writer seems to feel himself distinctly other from the people he teaches--he speaks of them (the little boy in the beginning who has forgotten how to love reading, the teenagers in the classroom later on) as almost a different species from himself. Thus he is constantly setting himself up as the superior stage of development to which they may later aspire. It's not attractive (of course, as I say this I realize I've just written a hugely long post with an awful lot of I's, but what can you do....).

It seems to me very important for teaching as I understand it that there be something more democratic in the relationship between the person at the front of the room and the students facing--if you're teaching, it is with any luck true that you know more about certain things and have more experience thinking about them, but in the literature classroom at least you as teacher sacrifice something if you are not thinking with rather than thinking at.

And I do not think that "thinking with" is possible with this voice and this set of assumptions--witness the fact that Pennac has written a short and on the whole accessible book about reading and a certain kind of reader (the lukewarm readers he wants to reclaim for reading) that is itself entirely inappropriate as reading material for those readers, because it is so condescending. It's the parent's view, the teacher's view, the older generation's view, never the thinking-in-the-place-of-the-other-person way.

If I were that converted lukewarm reader, I would read this and feel injured by Pennac's missionary ability to ignore the particularity and point of view of his conjectural students. (I am not sure if he has actually done the teaching described here or not.)

Amidst all this heroic-romantic rhetoric of freedom from the stultifying factory-like processes of education, in other words, lurks an old-fashioned demagogue. I prefer the idea that teachers should be allowed to do things their own way. A fabulously good teacher--a teacher that lights up things in the heads of a lot of students--is an amazing thing. There should always be more of them, they are great. But not everybody is that kind of teacher, and it doesn't mean they're no good, either. I had a lovely chemistry teacher in high school, for instance. I won't say his name but he was completely uncharismatic and his classes were indeed rather dull; in a very progressive school where classes were often really pretty exciting and at any rate relatively sensibly conducted, he had us sit in the same seat in class every day for the entire year and coded us by color (for the class) and number (for the seat) so that he could grade our coded million-times-mimeographed multiple choice exams with an old-fashioned plastic template thing without being biased. (I was Blue Two. And the next year I worked as his assistant, which was pretty funny: I graded the tests and tutored various people in chemistry. I liked chemistry.)

But he loved his subject, and the few students who really did want to learn from him (it really was a pretty unexciting class, I'm afraid to say) would get this amazing thing, of having to discover the interior excellence--he loved his subject, he loved transmitting knowledge and understanding to someone who cared, he just didn't have the gift of always being able to do it in a large group--of someone who then in a strange way did turn out to be a very good teacher after all.

Enough said--more on Derrida, though, sometime in the next few days. I love that guy's stuff, it really gets me thinking--in fact a lot of this rambling is obliquely in response to things I was thinking about at the excellent seminar I attended this afternoon.


  1. I think you are doing Pennac a disservice, partly because he teaches in such a very different school system, and partly because you are distorting his main intention, which is to sabotage much of what goes on in the classroom in the name of literature. And to give a kick to the dogmas of our age, for example that we need to read.

    'Our reasons for reading are as eccentric as our reasons for living. No outsider can demand an explanation for that secret intimacy.' (p. 206)

    I very much doubt that Pennac is as elitist as you claim. His own novels include mysteries, for example, that are very funny and gallic and funky!

    Perhaps the translation is part of the problem, and I think I may have a look at the French when I get the time.

    And yet I would agree with him that much interpretive reading does in practice become dull and stultifying for a lot of students. I think that you're forgetting whom you personally deal with - the elite!

    My own complaint with Pennac is that he puts too much of the onus on the classroom.

    And what is this nitpicking about 'mildly annoying split infinitives'? I find it refreshing that the 'rule' is ignored in favour of usage! I hereby resolve to inject a split infinitive every chance I get...

    (And please, when you quote, could you perhaps indicate page numbers? I like to check the context.)

  2. Oh, yes, all this is very fair criticism; I am really wanting the book just to be something it is not, which is hardly reasonable. And I certainly take your point about the difference between the systems, and also the fact that I am teaching extremely elite college students.

    And I also think of two books that were virtually ruined for me by high-school English class, "Jane Eyre" and "The Great Gatsby"--I rant about this periodically--"symbolism"--the red room, the green light--nothing I hate more....

    And yet, and yet.... I'd better get the French from the library and take a look. Thanks for your stimulating disagreement!

  3. Great post. The seeds of your own manifesto, perhaps?