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Reading in lockdown: rights of the reader

"We might feel pressured into tackling War and Peace when all we really want to do is watch Tiger King". Our Head of Reading Communities shares how to enjoy reading in lockdown.

Last updated: 21 May 2020

May you live in interesting times.

We all know this is allegedly an ancient curse. And these days we certainly know what it means, we are all living in interesting times. Here at Scottish Book Trust one of the things we have been doing to make our uncertain times a little more knowable (and therefore interesting in a different way) is asking some very patient volunteers about their reading habits during lockdown for our Reading in Scotland project.

The results certainly make for interesting reading.

Some people are finding reading to be a lifeline – something to bring comfort and insight in challenging circumstances. Equally, many of us are finding we have less time to read because we're at home with the kids, still trying to work full time and using technology that doesn’t always cooperate. We might be finding it hard to concentrate, or feel pressured into tackling War and Peace when all we really want to do is watch Tiger King.

There is something that can help. French author Daniel Pennac has penned a list of Rights of the Reader.(this link will open in a new window) These are usually applied to children – the English translation is illustrated by Quentin Blake and produced by Walker Books.

But at Scottish Book Trust we believe these rights apply to adult readers too! So if you are feeling like you are supposed to be some kind of reading super human during lockdown – relax, read on and rediscover your reading mojo.

The right not to read

This is the first right. It is fundamental. Reading for pleasure should be fun, it should bring you comfort and escape and joy. Only you know if reading is what you need right now. You do not have to read a damn thing you don’t want to. So there!

The right to skip

Books are like food – you don’t always want everything that’s on your plate. Something you normally love might suddenly be leaving you cold. There might be some stuff you don’t like or you just don’t want right now. Skip it. You are an adult, you can make choices just for you. I would never have got through Lord of the Rings without skipping all of the songs. Do you know what? I never missed them!

The right not to finish a book

Why are we so puritanical with ourselves about books? Why do we feel we have to be so worthy about them. We don’t keep listening to music we don’t like or watch tv we're not interested in, so why do we insist on torturing ourselves with books that we just can’t get into? Stop it now – put down that book that has been boring you for weeks and go and find something you actually want to read.

The right to read it again

When Pennac first came up with this right, he was probably thinking of a child struggling to understand a book after the first read through. But I hope he was also thinking those of us who sometimes reread a book because it feels like an old jumper – warm, comforting, just what you need right now. We don’t always have to move forward; sometimes revisiting an old friend can remind you of joys long forgotten or let you find new meanings in old words. You know what’s coming next, and couldn’t we all do with something familiar in unpredictable times?

The right to read anything

This is self-explanatory; read what you want and don’t let anyone guilt you or shame you about your choice of reading. If you find reading something informative helpful because it helps you understand our current situation, good for you. But if you want to read something light and romantic with a guaranteed happy ending because you just want to escape, that's just as good for you!

The right to mistake a book for real life

This is an interesting right for the current moment. On one hand, you could read all the pandemic science fiction and horror you can lay your hands on, because suddenly its speaking to you and helping you to make sense of the world. On the other hand, you could read something as far from reality as possible, because it will give you a different life to live. Take your pick and do what is right for you.

The right to read anywhere

If you find your usual reading routine isn't working for you at the moment, you can always mix it up. If circumstances allow, take a book into the garden at lunch, or listen to audio books during exercise. 10 minutes of reading on your phone during a break is fine if that is all you can manage as a key worker, as is reading a story together with your family over dinner or breakfast. We are all learning to adjust and make things work for our own circumstances. The loo is a great place to read if you are time poor...

The right to dip in

Not all reading has to be sustained and consistent. I deliberately keep a selection of books in the loo which are designed to be dipped into – short pieces, comic strips, funny anecdotes, favourite familiar poems. Sometimes two minutes is all the reading you need. And you can feel smug about multi-tasking!

The right to read out loud

I think Pennac may have been thinking of young people here, but being read to is a great treat for everyone. Actually, let’s extend the meaning of this to talking about what we read. Often the joy of a good book is talking to friends and family about it, swapping recommendations, finding out what you agree and disagree on. Try getting the book group back together via zoom, or agree with your distanced family members to all borrow the same ebook. Lots of people are sharing recommendations on social media at the moment – if you enjoy book chat, dive in to our Reading Lunch(this link will open in a new window) on Thursdays.

The right to be quiet

By the same token, we don’t have to talk about what we read. It can be a private treasure. You don’t have to share your lockdown reading with anyone, you don’t have to keep up with people on social media, and what you choose to read for enjoyment is your business. If you don’t want to share, don’t.

Most of all be kind to yourself; don’t judge yourself, don’t pressure yourself, don’t second guess yourself. These are all your rights as a reader!