Les droits imprescriptibles du lecteur.
1. Le droit de ne pas lire.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages.
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre.
4. Le droit de relire.
5. Le droit de lire n'importe quoi.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible).
7. Le droit de lire n'importe où.
8. Le droit de grappiller.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix.
10. Le droit de nous taire.
- Daniel Pennac, Comme un roman
The novelist Daniel Pennac has been a crusader for education reform for years; Comme un roman is his attempt at rescuing reading from the clutches of boring and oppressive curricular requirements. To that end, he presents this (now fairly well-known) reader's bill of rights. If reading could lose all its connotations of mindless drudgery, he reasons, then the feckless adolescents of the contemporary era could turn to books rather than video games and other such mind-rot.
But he's not entirely successful, at least as far as I'm concerned--though it is true that I might not be his target audience. Even if I let this avuncular (not to mention extravagantly well-read) persona guide me into a more lax attitude towards reading, I still feel ashamed for skipping pages, for skimming, for reading trash. Like Conrad, I usually consider reading a chore, and would almost always prefer a nap. This has its advantages: when I do finally get through a book without skipping or skimming, whether it takes me an hour or four months (as happened with Being and Nothingness, one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life), I am rewarded with the warm afterglow of self-overcoming. A species of masochism as impoverished as it is meaningless.
Is it just this ersatz asceticism that makes me skeptical about Pennac's bill of rights? I think there's more to it than that. Books, it seems, have to impose an austerity regime that's totally alien to a living experience of the world--they arbitrarily restrict the Bergsonian play of time and duration, they create their own rules. Consider the various postmodernist puzzleboxes of the Serbian author Milorad Pavic. As a kind of Barthesian suicide, he exhorts his readers to read diagonally, to begin at a random point, to rearrange chapters and construct their own narratives. But it doesn't work. Most people read Dictionary of the Khazars missionary-style, from beginning to end; the ones that don't find a text not all that different from the rest. The book resists any attempt, however playful, to subvert its inherent totalitarian logic.
I would suggest, then, that the proper regard one should have for a book should take into account the fact that it's a strangely authoritarian object. It was likely not written in a spirit of playfulness or laxity, and if it was,it needs to be carefully approached before it reveals that fact. (The books I read tend either to be somber and serious or hysterical and melodramatic.) How can one properly enter into its spirit without partaking of its puritanical worldview? Pennac waxes lyrical about Proust; what kind of Recherche have you got, finally, if you've skipped pages and skimmed, reread, left it unfinished?
I agree with Conrad. Reading is, and ought to be, much more a discipline than a leisure activity, much more an apprenticeship than a hobby. And a victory over a book unenjoyed is a victory nonetheless--maybe an even sweeter one.