10 Apr

A strange relationship with text

I read weird.

I’m not sure when I realized I had a different experience with text than others. You internalize your own way of interacting with the world so much that you’re often not aware of the water you’re swimming in as a fish. And due to some unique experiences in my childhood, I certainly wasn’t aware how different my relationship with text was.

I do remember hints.

In first, or second grade, I think I remember looking around as we were asked to read parts of a text book out loud for the teacher. For many students, it was an embarrassing and painful experience. I don’t know how they modeled reading, or where they were in ability, but for me it was the first moment where I suddenly felt I was living in a completely different reality.

Some students read perfectly normally, at a slow but expected pace. I squirmed when listening to others who stumbled, halted, struggled to read the word out loud. Not so much out of judgement (though our memories are often tinged to make us the heroes, so maybe I did), but mainly I remember out of a desire for them to hurry it up because I could anticipate words or had already read the text in the book quickly and didn’t understand why we had to sit around and listen to someone else slowly deliver the same information. The more it happened, though, the more I started to suspect that people around me weren’t orating, but actually deciphering the words as they were speaking.

Which to me was alien. So alien that I still doubted what I saw. Was it physically possible to read that slowly? Maybe, I struggled with Shakespeare, some of which my mother had in our small library on the boat, and I could only grasp when I looked at each word.

And trying to verbalize all that? You sound so arrogant and like such a dick. Or at least I often did. I learned quickly to never, ever, talk about this. In those grades. Being bookish and socially awkward was already a bit strike against me. Talking about how slow a reader was? I quickly learned I was the odd one out and to shut the fuck up about it.

But, I didn’t read letters. Sometimes not even words. No. Letters are dangerous. They still are. Letters were slippery little fuckers with variable states of possibilities. Because the idiot who invented the alphabet, that little shit, made some letters look pretty damn similar to others. b,d,p. Round bits with a stick.

Somehow, between my learning to read and my hunger to read, it never occurred to me to ask or complain about this. The way letters could often flip on me. I assumed every one else had the problem as well, and they got on with reading big books just fine. My mother told me ‘a book is like a movie in your head as you read’ and my response was ‘we don’t have movies on the boat, that’s awesome; let’s do that! Let’s read all the things!’

I developed some quick, unconscious coping mechanisms to get around the slippery letter issue. One: assume all possibilities at the same time and allow context to inform. Two: read quickly and do not dwell on letter shapes, but on series of words and word structures. That word might mean duck, puck, buck. You don’t know until you add the next word or so. Okay, it’s a duck or buck hunt (probably not puck). Look, something quacked, okay, duck. You’ve held that word in the back and now you can allow it to resolve.

Luckily, no one ever stopped to tell me that you’re supposed to read at certain levels or paces as a kid. I moved quickly up through readers and into books, at what I realize now was a young age. And I read fast. And the faster I read, the less I needed to worry about the letters and words.

And so, after a time, I began to encounter the realization that people reading out loud were often also reading at their ability speed.

I truly realized this when my stepdad handed me an Arthur C. Clarke book to read. I did so, enjoyed it, gave it back to him and told him it was pretty good. He was a bit taken aback. I don’t know how fast I read it, but he didn’t believe I had, so quizzed me (this actually happened to me a lot when I was lent books by adults). I sat down and recounted the book in… excruciating enough detail he had me stop.

“Read this out loud,” he said, handing me an open chapter. “At the speed that you read.”

Me: stares blankly. “But… you can’t do that. You can’t read out loud at the speed you read. It can’t work.”

Him: “Try.”

I did. I sounded like the micro-machine man, and even then, it didn’t actually approximate the way in which I scanned clumps of words at a time.

Sometime after we spoke about this, I took an after-class session on study skills. One of them was to teach speed reading. I read the included half page article in a three second glance, took the provided quiz, got all the answers. There was a place to calculate how fast you read and put it on a chart so you could improve. There was nowhere on the chart for me. I was sometimes a bit smug about that, later, but it never particularly was smart to advertise…

Now we know why I fell into this. I fell into this because I have a mild bit of dyslexia and I’m ADHD. Because I wanted movies in my head, and because ADHD can allow laser focus, I find it possible to read a book in a single night (just keep going faster and faster and fall right into it all). Because the words are hard, I just decided to skip the word and not worry too much about it. I stumbled into a weird method of reading that allowed me to compensate for what are normally reading handicaps.

I’m damn lucky. It was dumb, dumb luck. I learned to read in a very unstructured environment, where no one told me not to do all this. My rushed reading never bothered my initial teachers (I would try to blister through reading out loud, wherever I was first taught, I vaguely remember). My mom taught me that many people read quietly, so I quickly moved to that method. And that let me focus on word pairs. And scanning. I often lose my place, and read paragraphs out of order on the page if I slow down.

I never thought I had a touch of dyslexia, because dyslexics struggled to read, right? And I read like a motherfucker, so I couldn’t be dyslexic. There was some fear of being labeled that in my extended family. Bad experiences, I guess. But that stuff runs around the genes. It’s gotten easier and easier over time. I don’t know if I’m training my brain enough, or have worked with the words enough for so long, that it’s gotten better. But it has. I don’t know what that means. And now that I don’t read two fiction books a day, like I used to, the speed has slowed way, way down… by my standards. A good book is usually consumable in four hours.

It is mostly still hard when I do numbers. I balance the checkbooks, which means I use excel to create ledgers. And when I sync them up by hand, they’re always wrong. It always takes a few passes, and the culprit is always a damned 6 or 9 transposed that I read wrong. Or, thanks to the fonts used these days, a 2 or 8. It’d be nice to not have to go through that every single time, but blowing up the font on the web browser, or on excel, helps. Thank goodness for computers.

I find captchas to be hellish puzzles that are just plain unfair.

I’ve talked to others who struggle with dyslexia far more than I do. I don’t have a simple solution, that’s not what this post is (though that font for dyslexics is pretty cool, and seems to help some. Again, thank goodness for computers), I just have the one I lucked into for myself. I’ve taught a few dyslexics (or people who’ve been tagged dyslexic) speed reading, and it’s helped some of them (but not all), as I think some of the pressure, fear, anxiety that fuels trying to identify each letter or word gives more road bumps. Learning to be free to not have to process each word gives you a certain freedom to fly and look at the paragraphs.

I can’t complain. When I talk about the oddities or struggles that came with either ADHD or this, it’s with a certain amusement. That I got out completely unnoticed until adulthood due to coping mechanisms (actually, reading with ADHD is the easier problem. The bigger one is organization and memory, which I never got to cope with well, which, looking back, explained a lot of everyone’s frustrations with me all the way to adulthood and my getting a PDA and then smartphone). With pride that I got an education when coming from the background I come from. And now that more people’s reading habits are being warped by online scanning, a chuckle. I’m already well warped beyond that.

My biggest struggle comes with talking openly about how I explore text. Because it’s ‘not the right way.’ I knew that young. I kept it close. People knew I read quickly. But nothing breeds resentment more than making something look easy. In college I flipped open a book for class on a computer and set it to scroll past so I could read it in the 30 minutes before class while I ate noodles in a computer lab. In class, as I began to argue about the themes in the book I had just read, another student, outraged, said that I had only just speed-read the book, and was unqualified to have an opinion. I’d been ‘busted.’ Because I couldn’t possibly have experience the text? Or because it looked too easy?

Easy was years of banked experience, thousands of read books, and unconscious development of a system. But there it was, I was doing it wrong. (I was a lazy student, though, because of this ability. I’d read a whole textbook the night before a final. Because, why not?).

Harder as a writer, too, to talk about this. I talked about the fact that, if I liked a book, I’d go back and re-read it. When I found out about ‘rasterizing’ of pictures I began to describe that as my reading process. If I liked a book I’d read in an hour or two, I’d keep coming back to it. My favorite novel, I read over forty times until I could feel it burn in and stick.

But try telling lovers of the word and well turned phrases that you read like flying over an ocean. Try explaining rasterizing. Try talking about the fact that phrases do repeat, just like words, and when in the trance articles are just part of the word and verbs as well. That text is agglutinative when you are absorbing it.

It was as an adult that I would be told more times than as a child that I was failing to do literature right. That I should take my time, to slow down, and savor what I was experiencing.

From professors to colleagues. So many people like that word. Savor. As I were a glutton, shoving food down my throat so fast I didn’t have a chance to properly taste it.

Metaphors are so damn important, whether we realize it or not. And for me, my metaphor was that I felt like a bird getting speed up so that I could skim over a landscape and have it revealed to me. Sometimes I’d have to come back to parts of it, and I would miss many details. But the world was there to come back to, never gone. A landscape to be explored. And to stop flying was to come back down to earth, and land in a gully somewhere where I’d be unable to see over this, or that, or was it this, or was it that. Shit.

Words were never food. They were always a mindscape.

I listen to audiobooks now. It’s the only way I can experience text on a word by word basis in a manner that’s not inherently frustrating. It’s been interesting, listening to novels I’ve already read this way. I’ve found some new tidbits. I’ve also found that some of my favorite novels are no longer my favorite via word by word. I’ve also been able to listen to some novels that I hated slogging through, because they feature enough unique turns of phrase my way of reading gets slowed down enough that I slip out of flight, hit the page, and find myself struggling to reread the same sentence five times. Those novels are hard to get into flight for, because you know in order to read them like that, you’re going to miss a lot. And you worry that sometimes maybe there’s an incompleteness there.

Have I come to view word by word as intrinsically better? No, just a different experience. I’m glad to have it, I know it strengthens my abilities to experience literature like this. New experiences are good.

I’m sure someone will have a field day about what this means for my writing. The biggest impact it has, though, is on my ability to give readings. I’m still trying to learn how to read well. Not because I get nervous about an audience, but because while speaking out loud I read the text in front of me automatically. All of it. Which means when reading to an audience I’m usually scanning a few paragraphs ahead, rescanning, tweaking it, and then losing my place as my words run out and I try to rescan to find my place, causing me to stumble. My reaction has been to find a few pieces that I’ve almost got memorized, so that it’s starting to become performative and reassuring. I have an app that helps as well.

Mainly I am writing this to say there’s no one true way to experience literature. If you read a lot, you’re winning. And that, to anyone with ADHD or dyslexia out there, keep trying. You may be surprised yet at what you unlock.

I used to be worried about people’s reactions to all this. To whether I was doing it right. And then one day I stopped caring and talking about it. And it hurt to get pushback, but it was even cooler to find people who took heart by finding out that I had dealt with this. Because so many people seem to suggest that writers, or professors, or people who deal with words, are perfect with them.

I struggle with doing it certain ways. And I fly doing it others. I know I got lucky. But I know that I wouldn’t trade the way this worked out for anything. I read and write books. It’s my life. And everything around me seemed to suggest that that wouldn’t be the case. But I’m glad I didn’t read ‘right.’ I truly am.

You find your own path. And it’s good.

Addendum: for the curious, there’s been a lot more research about this then when I was first diagnosed, and I no longer feel so alone/crazy in suggesting that it helped me. Here’s a study that got results out of formalizing this accidental process of mine, teaching dyslexic kids to speed read helped them more than it stuck with normal readers. If you google speed-reading and dyslexia, you can read points, counterpoints, research, etc. It’s probably true that dyslexia has many underlying contributions to an outward-facing result, and some methods (dyslexic font, speed-reading) might help, and some might not. As in many things in life, mileage varies.