Many years ago, at an independent bookstore in Portland, I came across something a guy named Daniel Pennac (a French children’s book author) had compiled called “The Reader’s Bill of Rights.” It stuck with me because it affirmed most of my attitudes about reading.
I was reminded of the Bill of Rights recently when I was returning a book that I had chosen not to finish to one of the local libraries. I had to Google it, but here’s how the Bill of Rights goes:
1. The right to not read
2. The right to skip pages
3. The right to not finish
4. The right to reread
5. The right to read anything
6. The right to escapism
7. The right to read anywhere
8. The right to browse
9. The right to read out loud
10. The right to not defend your tastes
I read a lot. Live seven years without a TV set in your rural cabin and you’ll appreciate the companionship of books the way I do. I always have a pile of them waiting to be picked up. I get nervous when the pile diminishes.
Over the years, the “reader’s right” I have come to appreciate most is No. 3 — the right not to finish. Some people can’t contemplate starting a book and not following it all the way to the end. After reading hundreds of books in all kinds of genres, fiction and nonfiction, I feel like I’ve developed not only some critical judgment but also a pretty good sense of what is worth my time to stay with.
There can be many reasons to abandon a book. It may be badly written. I have a low tolerance for that, but it’s often the case that popular best-selling authors are not particularly polished writers. They’re successful because they spin good yarns and usually develop compelling characters. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes I want to throw the book across the room and yell about excruciatingly crappy writing. But I don’t, because the book doesn’t deserve the damage (and it often belongs to the library).
Even a book that you have hung in with may “jump the shark” (a TV reference to shows that run out of steam and lurch into the ridiculously improbable). I actually quit a book about 15 pages from the finish not long ago because its increasing absurdity didn’t deserve another wasted moment. I don’t know how it ended, and that doesn’t bother me.
A book can also be just plain boring. I love histories and biographies, but while some are brisk and engaging, others bog down into scholarly drones littered with footnotes and references. Snore.
I skip pages that don’t move the story along. I hate dream scenes and simply do not read them. Ever. I cruise right to the protagonist’s next wide-awake moment. Try it, you won’t miss a thing. Often I will gloss to the end of an interminably boring fight or chase scene (like the print version of slow-motion replays), or forego stultifying dialog.
I reread passages, chapters and sometimes entire books that I find especially vivid, insightful or provocatively complex. I browse book jacket blurbs, or read the first page or so of a book that catches my attention.
I would add a couple of my own “rights:”
• The right to read more than one book at a time. I usually have at least two, often three, books going simultaneously. I like to alternate between books that are dissimilar, to vary the intensity or experience. I’ll put a good thriller aside and switch back to a study of Winston Churchill’s war years.
• The right to characterize some inhabitants of the high-brow literary stratosphere — stuff the New York Times Review of Books pontificates about in somber reflective tones — as the often boring, ponderous, overrated slogs that they are. I suppose that makes me a literary lout. I don’t care. You want to anesthetize your soul with bloated, self-indulgent claptrap? Have at it.
That said, I’ll try just about anything or any author at least once, though I am by and large a lowbrow reader. I like mysteries if they are good — meaning a plausible story, characters with depth, and a strong sense of place. Some of the best literary authors extant write mysteries or police procedurals. Thrillers are OK if they don’t become too preposterous. Interestingly, although I like sci-fi films, I have very little use for sci-fi books.
That’s the great thing about the Reader’s Bill of Rights. They are inalienable.