ALAN v23n3 - Better Than Life: A Review Essay

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996
A Review Essay: Better Than Life

Ted Hipple

Imagine you've just finished the latest Bridgers or Blume, Cormier or Crutcher. It's been, as reviewers are fond of saying these days, a "good read." Your enthusiasm is lessened, however, by what you know lies ahead: a test, true-false items and multiple choice and fill in the blank and identify the quote and two essay questions. Or maybe it's a three-page book report, analyzing plot, character, setting, and theme. Perhaps your teacher subscribes to more modern tactics and you get to turn in your reading logs or design a new dust jacket or write a letter to the author or engage in a book chat. It is these kinds of assignments tacked on to reading that particularly bother Daniel Pennac, author of a marvelous book Better Than Life , a work I urge you to read.

Yet there's a touch of the oxymoron in such urging. I'm rather violating Pennac's very thesis when I suggest you ought to read this book, being a bit too much the teacher with my "shoulds" and "musts." Better, I think Pennac might warn me, that I simply tell you about the book and let you decide whether you will read it or not.

Pennac begins by recalling that magical threesome -- the small child, the parent (or grandparent), and Dr. Seuss, all of them wondering if those green eggs and ham will ever get eaten. It is a joyous and joyful moment. But then comes school, and reading takes on a wholly different, non-Seussian dimension: the child MUST READ, and soon, too, kindergarten in some places, even earlier in others, as if later matriculation to Yale depended on one's becoming a fluent reader asap. Moreover, said child MUST UNDERSTAND. We ask questions, distribute worksheets, give tests, assign book reports. And we -- parents, teachers, librarians, teacher educators, educational researchers and reformers -- wonder why the child often ends up not liking reading.

We still love to read. But what happened to the child? Television? Laziness? Possibly dyslexia or ADD? An inferior school system? (Should we consider a private school or tutoring?) Did required book reports, even when written on unread books or cobbled out of Cliff's Notes, do him in? We surreptitiously compare the child with the kid next door and take a smidgeon of vinegary solace that she's not reading much either.

One Pennac chapter, like all of his, very short, very poignant, very telling, summarizes the story:

To each his loneliness. The boy with his contraband notes on his unread book. The parents faced with the shame of his failure. The English teacher with his spurned subject matter.

Where does reading fit in?

Read to the child, Pennac suggests to the parent. And we won't ask for the answers to comprehension questions and for the contextual meanings of unusual vocabulary; we won't construct or deconstruct. We'll simply read. Soon the child will relax, will trust us (as in the old pre-school days), and will listen. And we'll do it the next night and the next. And one day the child will take the book from us and read on himself.

Why, one asks, can't the schools do this, too? The answer: They can, of course. But will they? I recall a stern-visaged, no-nonsense, sometimes wrong but never in doubt high-school teacher once telling me that to read to students in class "was an unconscionable waste of time." Ugh!

Pennac shifts back and forth here from the parent nervous that her child does not like to read to the teacher nervous that his entire class does not like to read. The latter is faced with, is a contributing part of, a school that seems to have only one role: "to teach the mastery of technique and critical commentary and to cut off spontaneous contact with books by discouraging the pleasure of reading." Pennac quotes Flannery O'Connor: "If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction."

Pennac is French -- his book was a best-seller in France -- and many of the suggestions for reading aloud come from French literature, but his outstanding translator, David Homel, has added some familiar American stuff. What we do by reading to children, older children, high-school kids, is to return to them "the gift of reading."

But there's more: this important book goes well beyond just telling us to read to kids. It invites us to invite kids to read and asks us to grant to them the rights and privileges that appertain thereunto in our own reading. And what are these rights and privileges? Herewith Pennac's Ten, which he calls a "Reader's Bill of Rights":

  1. The right not to 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 our tastes.

Pennac devotes a two-or three-page chapter to each of these. Wouldn't it be something if they were placed on the bulletin board in every literature classroom -- K through Ph.D. -- and actually discussed with students?

Pennac ends his little book with this paragraph:

Those few adults who gave me the gift of reading let their books speak and never once asked if I had understood . Naturally, I went to them when I wanted to talk....I dedicate these pages to them.
Would that one of my students would thank me so eloquently about providing for them an activity that often is indeed better than life -- reading. And I'm sorry, Mr. Pennac: though I'll do my damnedest, my decades as a pedagogue can't be entirely erased, even by your outstanding book, and so, when enamored by a book, I resort to old habits -- I urge. I urge you, my fellow lovers and teachers of reading, to read this book. It's available from Coach House Press, 50 Prince Arthur Avenue, Suite 107, Toronto, Canada M5R 1B5.
Ted Hipple, currently Executive Secretary of ALAN, has done more than nearly everyone to bring YA literature to the attention of all of us.