The Rights of the Reader

2. The right to skip

As a reader are we meant to read every single word that the author writes? If we are honest, we don’t always want to read a lengthy description of a place or an explanation of a character’s motives. We want action, adventure, mystery and murder!

I  first remember ‘skipping’ sections of a novel when I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. It wasn’t that I was totally uninterested in his descriptions of soldiers trudging across forests into Italy, avoiding Nazi attacks – I just wanted to get to the central story of Pelagia who falls in love with an Italian Captain. The tale of war torn love on the Greek Island of Cephallonia spoke to me in ways that the devastating tale of Italian defeat, did not. Not only did I skip – I missed entire chapters! I quickly scanned the pages and moved on! So, even now, I can only confess to having read half of the novel.

Daniel Pennac uses the example of Moby Dick – which I still have not read – the whale-hunting explanations are painful. So in his words, ‘skip those pages and, without bothering about the rest, follow Ahab as he pursues his great, white reason for living and dying.’

Why is this important?

If children can’t decide what they’re capable of reading by choosing which bits to skip, the great danger is that other people will do it for them, and, armed with outsized scissors of imbeciles, they’ll lop off everything they decide is too difficult. The results are ghastly. Moby Dick and Les Miserables reduced to 150-page summaries, mutilated, stunted, mummified, rewritten in some kind of bare-bones language thought to be for young people.

So, my advise is to skip. Especially if  it means that you read War and Peace. I might even try Moby Dick and Catch 22, again, over the holidays.