Bibliophobia

We love to read, but for our children books are quite another story. By Daniel Pennac. Illustration by Andrew Kulman
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The verb "to read" is averse to being put in the imperative, an intolerance it shares with certain other verbs, such as "to love" and "to dream".

One can always try, of course - so try: "Love me!" "Dream!" "Read!" "So read then, for heaven's sake, I'm ordering you to read!"

"Go up to your room and read!"

Which produces?

Nothing.

He's fallen asleep over his book. All of a sudden the window seemed to give directly on to something desirable. It's out through this window that he's flown, in order to escape from his book. But even in sleep he's vigilant, the book still open in front of him. We only have to open his bedroom door to find him seated at his desk, busy reading earnestly. Even if we sneak up on him he'll have heard us coming, from the surface of his sleep.

"So, do you like it?"

He won't reply with a "No" since that would be to commit the crime of lese-majeste. Books are sacred, so how could he not like reading? What he'll tell us rather is that the descriptions are too lengthy.

Reassured, we'll go back to our television set. It may even be that his reflection will spark off a heated debate, between ourselves and those near and dear to us.

"He finds the descriptions too lengthy. He's got a point, we're in the century where everything's audiovisual. Of course, 19th-century novelists were obliged to describe everything."

"That's no reason to let him skip half the pages!"

But don't let's belabour the point, for he's gone back to sleep!

This aversion to reading is all the more inconceivable if one is of a generation, a time, a milieu, or a family, in which the tendency was rather to prevent one from reading.

"Come on, stop that reading, you're going to ruin your eyes."

"You'd be better out playing, the weather's wonderful."

"Lights out, it's late!"

In those days, yes, the weather was always too beautiful, and the night too dark, for reading.

Note that whether reading or not reading, the verb was already being conjugated in the imperative. Things were no better in the past. The result was that reading in those days was a subversive activity, and to the discovery of the novel was added the excitement of disobedience to the family - a double splendour! Ah, the memory of those stolen hours under the covers, reading by the gleam of a torch! Didn't Anna Karenina gallop fast, so fast, towards her Vronsky at those hours of the night! They loved each other, those two, that was beautiful enough, but they also loved each other despite the ban on reading, and that was even better! They loved each other despite father and mother, despite the maths homework which needed finishing, despite the French exercise to be handed in, despite the bedroom which needed tidying up. They loved each other instead of sitting down to dinner, they loved each other more than dessert, preferred each other to a game of football and a trip to pick mushrooms. They'd chosen and preferred each other over everything else. My God but their love was beautiful!

And the novel - how short it seemed!

Let's be fair: it wasn't our initial intention to impose reading on him as a task. Initially, we'd had only his pleasure in mind. The first years of his life put us in a state of grace, and our complete wonderment when faced with this new life gave us a sort of genius. For his sake we became story-tellers. From the moment he opened up to language, we told him stories, finding in ourselves a skill we were unaware of. His pleasure inspired us, his happiness gave us breath. For his sake, we used to create additional characters, run one episode into another, and refine the machinations. We invented a world for him, like Tolkien in his old age for his grandchildren. On the borderland between day and night, we became his novelist.

But if we hadn't had that talent, if we'd told him other people's stories, and none too well at that, searching for our words, mispronouncing proper names, mixing up episodes, matching the beginning of one tale with the end of another, it wouldn't really have mattered. Even if we'd told him nothing at all, if we'd just read to him out loud, we would still have been his very own novelist, his sole story-teller, through whom, every evening, he'd have slipped into the pyjamas of dream before melting under the covers of night. Better still, we would have been The Book.

Think back to that intimate space, so unlike any other!

How we liked to scare him, just for the pleasure of then comforting him! And how he demanded of us that very same scare! Already, he was hardly taken in at all, yet still he'd be all atremble. In short, a true reader. Such was the couple we formed in those days: he the ever-crafty reader, and we the ever-willing book!

In fact, we taught him everything about books during the era when he couldn't yet read. We opened him to the infinite diversity of things imaginary, initiated him into the joys of static travel, endowed him with ubiquity, delivered him from Chronos, plunged him into the fabulously populated solitude which is a reader's. The stories we'd read to him were swarming with brothers, sisters, parents, ideal doubles, flights of guardian angels, cohorts of watchful friends to sort out his woes, but who, for their part, were struggling with their own ogres, and so found refuge in the worried beatings of his heart. He'd become, as a reader, their reciprocating angel. Without him, their world didn't exist; without them, his own world remained to him hopelessly impenetrable. He thus discovered the paradoxical virtue of reading, which consists in abstracting us from the world, to let us find a meaning in it.

Upon his return from these travels, he wouldn't say a word. It would be morning and he'd be on to something else. And to tell the truth, we didn't seek to know what he'd gained over there; while for his part he innocently nurtured the mystery. Over there was, so to speak, his own universe. His private rapport with Snow White or whichever of the seven dwarves had an intimacy to it compelling secrecy. What greater bliss can a reader experience than this silence after reading!

Yes, we taught him everything about books.

It was marvellous how we gave him the appetite for reading.

So that - think back to that memory - so that he was in a hurry to learn how to read.

What great teachers we were when we didn't bother about teaching methods!

So there he is, a teenager, withdrawn into his room, in front of a book he isn't reading. All his desires to be elsewhere are forming into a murky screen blurring the lines. He's seated in front of his window, the door closed behind him. Page 48. He doesn't dare count the hours spent in reaching the forty-eighth page. The book is exactly four hundred and forty-six pages long - it might as well be five hundred. 500 pages! If only there were some dialogues at least! Sure! The pages jammed with lines compressed between minuscule margins, black paragraphs heaped one on top of the other, and here and there the oasis of some inverted commas, indicating that a character is speaking to another character - the charity of a dialogue. But the other character doesn't reply. Followed by a block of twelve pages! Twelve pages of black ink! There's a lack of air - woah! There's a real lack of air here! Shitting fucking hell! He's swearing. Sorry, but he's swearing. Shitting fucking hellish stupid book! Page forty-eight. At least if he could remember what was in the first forty-seven pages! But he doesn't even dare think of them, though he's sure to be asked about them. Daylight's gone, and it's winter. From the depths of the house, rising to greet him, the theme tune to the television news. Another half-hour to get through before dinner. It's amazing how compact books are, impossible to get into, and apparently they don't even burn easily. Even fire can't find a way between the pages, for lack of oxygen. All these comments he makes to himself in the margin - and his private margins are immense. A book's an object that's thick, compact, dense and bruising. Page forty-eight or one hundred and forty-eight, what difference does it make? The landscape's the same. He sees again the teacher's lips pronouncing the title. He hears the question asked by all his pals: "How many pages?"

"Three or four hundred."

(Liar!)

"When's it for?"

The announcement of the fatal date unleashes a chorus of protest: 'In a fortnight? Four hundred pages [five hundred] in a fortnight! But we'll never manage it, sir!'

Sir does not negotiate.

A book is a bruising object and a timeless lump. It is boredom made palpable. A book is books, "The Book". In his essays, this is the sole name he gives it: the book, a book, books, some books.

"In his book Les Pensees, Pascal tells us that..."

The teacher can protest in red all he likes that this is not the correct appellation, that he must speak of a novel, an essay, a collection of stories, a booklet of poems, that the word "book", since it can name anything, says nothing precise; that a telephone directory is a book, just as is a dictionary, a guide book, a stamp album, an account book. But it makes no odds, since the word will get the better of his pen in his next essay: "In his book, Madame Bovary, Flaubert tells us that..."

For the fact is that, from the point of view of his present loneliness, a book is a book. And every book is worth its weight in encyclopaedias - encyclopaedias like the hard-backed one which used to be slid under his backside as a child so he'd be able to reach the family dining table.

The weight of every book is such as to drag him down. He sat on his chair fairly lightly just a short while ago - light with all the resolutions he'd made. But after a few pages he felt invaded by that painfully familiar heaviness, the weight of the book, of boredom, the unbearable millstone of effort without achievement.

His eyelids announce to him the imminence of shipwreck.

The reef of page 48 has sprung a leak beneath his list of resolutions.

The book sweeps him away.

And they drown.

In the meantime, down below, around the box, the case against that corrupter, the television, is winning converts.

"The crassnessk the vulgarity, the violence of the programmes - it's unbelievable! You can't switch on the set without seeing it."

"Japanese cartoons. Have you ever watched one of those Japanese cartoons?"

"It's not just the programmes, it's the TV itself, it's so easy, the viewer's so passive."

"Yes, you switch on, sit down."

"You zap."

"You get dispersed."

"At least zapping lets you avoid the adverts."

"Not even. They've got it down to simultaneous scheduling. You zap out of one advert and straight into another."

"Sometimes into the same one!"

Thereupon, silence, induced by the abrupt discovery of an area of "consensus", lit up by the blinding radiance of our grown-ups' lucidity.

Then someone says, mezza voce: "Reading, of course, now that's something different, reading's an activity!"

"It's quite right what you say, reading's an activity, 'the activity of reading', very true."

"Whereas the telly, and even the cinema if you think about it - in a film everything's handed to you on a plate, no effort involved, it's all spoon-fed to you, the images, the sound, the sets, the background music in case you hadn't understood the director's intention."

"The squeaking door to tell you it's the moment for your flesh to creep."

"With reading you've got to imagine it all. Reading's an activity requiring constant creation."

Another silence.

(Among "constant creators" this time.)

Then: "What strikes me, you know, is the number of hours spent on average by a kid in front of the TV set, compared with those spent studying French at school. I read the statistics on it."

"It must be phenomenal!"

"Six or seven for every one, not counting hours spent at the cinema. A child (I'm not talking about our own) spends an average - a minimum average - of two hours a day in front of the TV and eight to ten hours at the weekend. That makes a total of thirty-six hours, as against five hours of French a week."

"Obviously, school's no match."

A third silence, as no echo can emerge from such bottomless pits.

There are certainly plenty of things which could be said to measure the distance separating him, the teenager, from his book.

And we said them all.

For instance that television is not the only thing at issue. That between our children's generation and the time when we were adolescent readers, the decades have been as profound as centuries.

The result being that, if psychologically we feel closer to our children than our parents were to us, intelectually we've remained closer to our parents.

(Here follows controversy, discussion, definition of the adverbs "psychologically" and "intellectually", and then as reinforcement a new adverb:)

"Closer affectively, if you prefver."

"Effectively?"

"I didn't say effectively, I said affectively."

"In other words, affectively we're closer to our children, but effectively closer to our parents, is that it?"

"It's a 'sociological fact', an accumulation of 'sociological facts', that amount to our children being the sons and daughters of their times while we were only the children of our parents."

"...?"

"Of course! When we were teenagers society didn't treat us as consumers. Commercially and culturally speaking it was a society of adults. We all had clothes in common, food in common, culture in common, the younger brother got the hand-me-downs, we ate the same menu, at the same times of day, at the same table, took the same walks on Sundays, the television bound the family together with its one and only channel (which was, incidentally, a lot better than any of them today), and as for reading matter, our parents' only concern was to place certain works on shelves well out of our reach."

"And as for the previous generation, our grandparents', they used to forbid girls to read, pure and simple."

"It's true! And especially novels. All that 'imagination' and those 'madwomen in the attic' - a threat to marriage, they were."

"Whereas today's teenagers are full-scale consumers in a society which clothes them, entertains them, feeds them, cultivates them. Brand names - McDonald's, Church's, Naf Naf, and the rest - are everywhere. We used to go to 'parties', they go out 'clubbing', we used to read books, they gobble up cassettes. We used to commune under the protective wing of the Beatles, they enclose themselves in the autism of their Walkmans. And there's something unprecedented, even, whole districts confiscated by teenagers, gigantic urban territories turned into juvenile hang-outs.'"

There follows an evocation of the district around the Pompidou Centre.

"Beaubourg."

"Barbaric Beaubourg."

"Beaubourg the teeming fantasy zone, beaubourg-the-hang-out-for-drugs- and-violence, Beaubourg and the chasm of the metro and the pit of Les Halles!"

"From which spring hordes of illiterates, at the foot of the biggest public library in France!"

A further silence - this time the beautiful "silence of paradox".

"Do your children frequent Beaubourg?"

"Not much. Fortunately, we live in the fifteenth arrondissement."

Silence.

Silence.

"So in fact they don't read any more."

"No."

"Too caught up in other things."

"Yes."

Is it the fault of the TV?

Is the twentieth century too "visual"? Was the nineteenth century too descriptive? And why not the eighteenth too rational, the seventeenth too classical, the sixteenth too Renaissance, Pushkin too Russian and Sophocles too dead? As if it required centuries for relations between people and books to become distant. When in fact it requires only a few years.

A few weeks.

The time it takes for a misunderstanding.

I don't recall his finding the descriptions too lengthy during the period when, at the foot of his bed, we'd evoke the red dress of Little Red Riding Hood, and, right down to the last details, the contents of her basket, not forgetting the depths of the forest, the grandmother's ears, turned strangely hairy all of a sudden, the bobbin and the latch.

It's not that centuries have passed since then. Moments rather, moments going by the name of life and which are given a semblance of eternity by the pressure of such inviolable precepts as: "You've got to read."

This is an edited extract from Reads Like a Novel by Daniel Pennac, translated into English by Daniel Gunn, and published by Quartet at pounds 8. Pennac was born in Casablanca in 1944. His father was an officier de la coloniale; consequently, Pennac's childhood was spent in Africa, Asia and Europe. He trained as a teacher, and at present works in a lycee in Paris. A prolific novelist whose first book was published in 1973, Pennac received wide acclaim for his 'Malaussene' trilogy.

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