The escapist pleasure of reading

One of the reasons I rarely introduce myself as a children’s books author to grown-ups is because almost always the next thing they say is:

“My child just doesn’t read. How much I tell him.”

“Oh my child, she has no time to read only.”

“Arre, but who reads now?”

“She used to read, but now she doesn’t. I feel so sad. I mean, I used to read all the time as a child.”

And then I watch their eyes glaze over, right after they ask me for recommendations of books. Earlier, I’d get annoyed. Now I simply suggest they read The Rights of the Reader, a wonderful book by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Originally written in French, the book has been translated by Sarah Ardizzone.

The Rights of the Reader is not a self-help book. Rather, it’s truly about reading being an intrinsic part of our lives – it is but a way of living. Or rather a way of reminding grown-ups that reading is about freedom, joy, and the wonders of a story. Pennac writes, “You can’t make some someone read. Just like you can’t make them fall in love or dream.” As he points out, you can try and push, but nothing will come of it. What he does is reminds us why we read – because it’s joyful.

Pennac makes some keen observations – 57 of them to be precise. In summary, it’s basically that while there may be the lure of the television or screens or consumeristic goodies, but really the reluctance to read happens when it becomes a chore. When as parents, teachers, and well-meaning adults, we constantly say “reading matters”, and then assume that will excite a child to read. When in fact, the exact opposite happens – and the pleasure of reading falls away.

I have seen it happen closer home, the nephew an avid reader, suddenly turned away from his books. It really bothered me – after all, he and I bonded over Harry Potter and the wonders of the wizarding world. The books, not the film, duh. I was also guilty of giving him grown-up tropes of how reading matters, until I realised that’s now how it works.

Instead, we started talking about the books he was reading once again. Like we used to, when we’d read out loud to him, just before his bedtime. I picked up David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, and read out parts to him, describing some of the triumphs of the story. We pored over Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls together, marvelling at the artwork and trying to figure out how many of the inspirational stories we already knew. I told him what Aaron Blabey, the author of The Bad Guys series, said in an email interview for a feature.

I dug out my old Ranjit Lal books and we spoke about the story behind The Battle for No. 19. We argued over whose illustrations we really liked in The Puffin Treasury of Modern Indian Stories. And I shared with him (somewhat reluctantly) some of my first editions.

Slowly, he began picking up those books again. Not all the time, but often enough. Because, as Pennac writes, “This pleasure in reading was always there, hidden away in the attics of their teenage minds because of a secret fear, the (very, very deep-rooted) fear of not understanding. They’d forgotten what a book was, what it could offer.”

If you look online, Blake has illustrated the back of the book into a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ‘The Rights of the Reader’ poster. In that lies the wisdom that any reader will nod at – the right not to read, the right to skip, the right not to finish a book, the right to read it again, the right to read anything, the right to mistake a book for real life, the right to read anywhere, the right to dip in, the right to read out loud, and the right to be quiet. Look it up, you will want to print and frame it.

So the next time, you meet a grown-up moaning over their child not finding the time to read. Quote Pennac. “Time to read is always time stolen. (Like time to write, for that matter, or time to love.) Stolen from what? From the tyranny of living.”

The Rights of the Reader, Walker Books is priced at priced at Rs 474 onwards

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