I love books about books, and particularly books about reading. I seem to be on rather a run of them at the moment, and quite a few of them seem to be in translation. Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet is particularly brilliant (and I wrote about it on my own blog a while ago), and I love Alberto Manguel’s books; now I can add Better Than Life to the pile. Although originally published in 1992 as Comme un Roman, I quite like Better Than Life as a title – which was given to David Homel’s 1994 translation – because it has the sort of starry-eyed hyperbole that those of us who love reading will unquestioningly give to our devotion. And Alberto Manguel (to come full cycle in my reading) was the editor for Coach House Press, who published this edition. If anybody understands a love of reading, it is Manguel.
Better Than Life takes a slightly unusual tack, in that it is often through the perspective of a father hoping his child will learn to love reading, or a teacher struggling with the tactics given to inculcate this passion. Indeed, as he says, it doesn’t take much for a child to love the act of reading itself – because of the miracle that comes when learning to read turns into reading easily. He describes it beautifully:
His triumphant cry celebrated the culmination o he greatest intellectual voyage ever, a sort of first step on the moon, the movement from an arbitrary set of lines to the most emotionally charged meaning. Little bridges, circles, and slanting sticks… and you could say “Mommy!” There it was, written, right there, and he had done it! Not a combination of syllables, not a word of a concept any more. It wasn’t any mother, it was his mother, a magical transformation, infinitely more eloquent than the most faithful photographic likeness, built from nothing but little circles and sticks and bridges, that have now suddenly – and forever! – become more than scratches on paper. They have become her presence, her voice, the good way she smelled this morning, her lap, that infinity of details, that wholeness, so intimately absolute, and so absolutely foreign to what is written there, on the rails of the page, within the four walls of the classroom.
Lead into gold.
He had just turned lead into gold.
Isn’t that lovely? Well, things don’t seem to have continued to work out like that – Pennac’s child has grown to dislike reading, seeing it as an unpleasant chore at school. I say ‘Pennac’, but it’s not entirely clear who is being addressed in Better Than Life, which is sometimes in the second person (and sometimes in the first, and sometimes in the third) – and the ‘you’ is sometimes Pennac, sometimes his child, sometimes the abstract reader, sometimes the abstract teacher; this mix of voices is the Frenchest the book gets. Somehow it works well nonetheless.
From the perils of parenthood, Pennac segues into the perils of being a teacher; how to convey the joy of reading, and how to avoid the pitfalls of reading becoming boring. Along the way he also discusses how to maintain these oneself, and (which the back cover has listed, in a desperate attempt to find cohesion in this delightfully meandering book) the ‘Reader’s Bill of Rights’, including such things as ‘the right to read anything’, ‘the right to read out loud’, ‘the right to skip pages’, ‘the right to not defend your tastes’, and so on and so forth. This list reflects the topics of ten ‘chapters’ in Better Than Life – these so-called chapters are often only three or four pages – but not really a defining structure. Pennac is too spontaneous for a defining structure – the keynote of loving reading and wanting others to share this love is what gives Better Than Life its cohesion.
There are books about reading that I love more, but there can’t be many author who as are passionate and determined about the topic as Pennac. Yes, he’s preaching to the converted – but if I ever have children and want to help point them towards love of the written word, then I will remember this book. And that description of learning to read (since I can no longer remember learning to read myself) is something that will certainly stay with me.