I was going to publish a list of books for you to give as gifts. Here are some ideas:
Tromelin, the Island of Lost Slaves A true story of slaves and captors shipwrecked together on a tiny island. The author says he’s “an archeologist of distress.”
The Radical Reader, A Documentary History of the Radical Tradition U.S. history laid out by protest topics rather than by wars or Presidents.
But I didn’t read those books. So I’m going to tell you instead that I don’t like books. And I don’t read books. And I have dyslexia.
I would have never known I had dyslexia except that a mother brought her twelve-year-old dyslexic son to my apartment for a full-day coaching session. Her son had the beginnings of an online publishing business. He had kids his age writing for him, and he had sponsors. He wanted me to help him write a business plan and then work with him over the next year to execute it.
My first question was, how is he doing this if he can’t read?
The kid’s explanation of dyslexia blew my mind: dyslexia is not necessarily an inability to read.
This boy could read everything his contributors sent him. And he could read ESPN all day long, which he did. But he gets a headache when he reads new or challenging material. Or he falls asleep. In his case, dyslexia is an inability to process what he’s reading.
I looked for a test to give to my kids. They both get headaches when they read pages of unfamiliar material. Or they fall asleep. Which means I had to go back six years to get the photo up top, but I have a million photos of my sons reading that look like this:
Of course I gave myself the test first. It was a multiple-choice reading comprehension test, and the last choice for every question was “I’d be guessing.” Which made me realize that I always guess when it comes to reading comprehension.
Then I had all of us tested, and I was literally speechless. At first. Then it was like everything in my life started fitting together like a puzzle.
I learned to read when I was three. My grandma saw me staring at the pages and she told me enough so I could decode the rest. I remember the moment it clicked. I remember thinking I never want to stop decoding words. But I also remember in first grade, when I refused to do the reading curriculum. I said, “I have been reading since I was three.” The teacher said, “You don’t understand anything you read.” I thought that was irrelevant, which I let her know, every single day.
I read nonstop as a kid. But I read easy novels. Stories about kids my age, or younger. I couldn’t keep track of stories in long novels written generations before me. Reading about unfamiliar people and places is way more difficult. I just thought I didn’t like the authors. I thought I was opinionated. But actually, I’m just a bad reader.
I’m well read. Because most famous writers have written at least one short story, which I can always get through. I can talk about literary history and I can talk about good writing and bad writing. And I held my own in graduate school for English without reading anything. Believe me, it’s not that difficult. It’s all theory and criticism, not story. I discovered you can be affected by the revolutionary nature of a book without reading it.
I read non-fiction constantly. But that’s because I love the feeling of reading. I love looking at words and I love ideas. But I don’t read each line, beginning to end. I skim for the important parts, skip to the conclusion, and if I still don’t understand, I start scanning Wikipedia to get the main idea.
I got all A’s in college. But I never even bought the textbooks. I made up a shorthand for myself and I took transcripts of the course lectures. Then I used a fountain pen to copy my shorthand into a neater page of shorthand. And I memorized the course material that way.
Then I became a writer. So I joined a long list of people who launched writing careers without knowing they had dyslexia: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Yeates, Flaubert, and Umberto Eco, who said, “I don’t read. I write.”
When my son was three he was with other kids who were also autistic. And all readers. The teacher removed all the books in the classroom because, she said, the kids were hyperlexic — they love reading — but they are not understanding what they are reading because they are dyslexic.
I often think about that boy I coached who read ESPN. What is my ESPN? I think it might be suffering. I could read about that all day, because it doesn’t feel like reading so much as picking a wound.
Have I told you about The Children’s Blizzard? In the 1800’s the US wanted people to move west so the weather bureau didn’t report impending storms. One bright, warm day a huge snowstorm smothered the midwest in just a few hours. Kids were at school with no heat and no warm clothes. Each chapter tells the story of a group of children and their horrifying effort to survive the cold.
So maybe you need your own version of ESPN and childhood suffering. And as for the rest of the books, you can love a book you don’t read; like falling in love with someone without having sex. Here’s an example:
I read the table of contents of the Radical Reader to learn the vocabulary of social disturbance. The words I didn’t know, I looked up online: monkeywrenching (eco-tourism for radicals) and culture jamming (deconstructionism for consumers) and Lysistrata protest (sexual empowerment for the disenfranchised). I realized my penchant for protest is limited by my narrow understanding of what it is.
I skimmed the introduction for a big idea, and I get stuck on, “Radicalism is as American as apple pie.” I realize that the ubiquitous-as-apple-pie smilie always feels a little anti-Semitic to me, because American Jews — even the most assimilated — have no history of cooking with lard, because it’s not kosher, which means the pie crusts of the Jews are always sub-par.
But that’s ok. I like a book where someone works to unhinge my assumptions. I felt like I read the book because I learned something, and I formed a new opinion of my own. That’s all I need.
You can process every word of a book and not let it change you. That’s finishing the book – something competitive readers might measure. Reading a book is making space for a new idea in your heart, and it might be merely a page or a paragraph or a turn of a phrase. Reading is letting sparks flight where they might catch, there is danger and recklessness, and god I love reading so much, even though I rarely read a book.