The Reader XIV II - Better Than Life

Better Than Life

By Daniel Pennac
Translated by David Homel
Coach House Press, Toronto, 1994, 207 pp., $22.95
Reviewed by Sheila Egoff

Long ago, in 1944 to be exact, an American mother, Annis Duff, published a book about children and their reading entitled "Bequest of Wings": A Family's Pleasure With Books. It was a gift that heartened all of us who then dealt with the reading of children: parents, librarians and teachers, and, by extension, publishers, booksellers, reviewers, etc. It reinforced what we had always felt and expressed personally but had never proved in our efforts to make readers of the young. Basically it contained a formula (delicately expressed over 252 pages) for making avid readers: (1) start reading aloud early (even to a babe in the cradle); (2) keep reading aloud at bedtime; (3) give the young only the best according to their likes and interests; (4) keep reading aloud as a family when the children are older; (5) above all, make reading a pleasurable activity, not a coercive one. Result: lifelong readers by the age of eight. According to her second book, her daughter was an avid and discriminating reader as a teenager.

Now, half a century later, comes this cri de coeur about the reading of the young from Daniel Pennac, a French (Parisian) author, teacher, and parent, originally entitled Comme un roman when published in France in 1992. Here Pennac demythologizes the ritual of bedtime reading, (nowadays, as much a ritual with many young parents as the goodnight kiss): it is not enough! It is a romance that fails because it is too soon left unattended. (It is most noticeable, at least to this reviewer, that it is generally only the parents of very young children who brag about how much Janey and Johnny love books.)

Pennac tries to account for what often goes wrong between childhood and adolescence. He refuses to blame television and other modern activities for stealing away readers, but blames himself as a parent and other parents who stop sharing books with their young at too early an age, then try to nag their adolescents into continuing the reading habit. He provides joyful entries into the world of literature especially for hard-pressed secondary-school teachers of literature. Here he quotes Paul Valéry: ". . . it is by no means through vocabulary and syntax that literature first begins to seduce us." In other words, pleasure can be taken out of a book when it is "taught."

Pennac never falls into the trap of assuming that reading must overwhelm a person's life for the activity to "stick." In putting his theories into the form of rights, he first ennunciates the right not to read (my italics). His other nine rights---a very short chapter is devoted to each---show great respect for the reader. "The freedom to write," he points out, "cannot coexist with the obligation to read." Other important rights are those of skipping paragraphs or pages (who needs all the political and social details in Les Misèrable?) and not finishing a book.

Parents and teachers who subscribe to the ill-founded notion that it does not matter what children read as long as they do read get no sympathy from Pennac (or me!). He knows that the young as well as adults are going to read some rubbish in their lifetime and so another of his rights is "the right to read anything." However, through his examples it can be seen that he trusts a fine book to work its own magic and he suggests that the magic can be reinforced by reading aloud even to what are considered recalcitrant adolescents. Here recalcitrant means "put off" by literature. There is a strong implication that only a quality work (such as Suskind's Perfume) will stand up to oral declamation, whereas a poor one (such as a Harlequin romance) will wither at this kind of touch.

Pennac discusses how the intimidation of a book's length can be overcome by the power of its style (that of, for instance, Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude). In format and style, Better than Life is a model of "the new look" in dispensing argumentative information. Sentences and paragraphs are, for the most part, short and pithy, chapters are brief and the typeface is larger than that usually found in a paperback. It may well be designed for the parent or teacher who is a reluctant reader.

That said, it is also urbane, witty, passionate and sensible. Above all it shows an infectious love of literature bolstered by a mind well stocked with European and English literature. At least once in their school years, every person should have a teacher like Daniel Pennac.

Sheila Egoff is Professor Emeritus, the University of British Columbia. She has written several books on children's literature including The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, co -authored by Judith Saltman. Sheila Egoff has recently been made an Officer of the Order of Canada.


{ Literascape } { What's New } { The Reader } { Fall 1994 }

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