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.

Hyperlexia and dyslexia are genetic, (and both are autism spectrum). You can love to read and be bad at it; sometimes people love to read just because it’s calming.

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.

38 replies
  1. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    At the end, “read a books” should be “read a book.” Or was that intentional — you don’t proofread either?

    • Jim C.
      Jim C. says:

      That surprises me. I’m not Jewish, but I’m like Jules Winfield — I just don’t dig on swine. I make great pie crusts with butter. I understand that some vegetable oils also make pretty nifty crusts.
      I never knew that pie was such a problem for Jewish cooks, probably because I grew up in the years after Crisco (“crystallized cottonseed oil,” a vegetarian shortening) came along. I still prefer butter, though.
      I do doubt that a good pie crust can be made from schmaltz, but there are alternatives.

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I have slight dyslexia. I write letter out of order. Or, in order in the page but not always in order of application.
    I read competitively, but as I age I care less and less about reading everything I’m handed, everything I was tempted to buy or pick up. I recently got rid of a large pile of books I’d been carrying around for a decade. I realized that as interesting as I found their covers and summaries, and even their subject matter ( I had tons of music biographies from my years as a mucus student) I obviously wasn’t I treated enough to make them come next.
    I still have about 20 books (down from 200+) that I move around and restack. I’m slowly getting through them.
    I also read tons of audio books. I absorb the information the same as if I were reading. I know this since I often can’t recall if I read a hard copy orbif I listened to it.
    I’ve wished for a while to have my pile gone so that I could freely jump in to what ever new book came my way. Instead I feel a little guilty everytime time I pick up an “outside” book because I’m putting off working through my pile.
    I read for pleasure, but also out of obligation. Public education and my mother stressed that reading is the key to self improvement and success. So when I start a book that doesn’t really grab my attention, I feel obligated to finish it. If I don’t and I call it boirng to some one else who liked it,they can tell me I just didn’t the give it a chance. So I have to finish it so I can say without fear that it was bad, boring, or poorly written. This means I both waste my time and discover little jewels that unfortunately don’t show up till page 250 some times.
    I also have up to five books at a time. I have two audio books, a book I keep at work, a book by my bed, and a PDF on my phone. Oh and two started on Kindle.like 50 pages in started.
    My mom used to say she’s like to commit some crime so she could go to jail for a few months. I guess we kids did t let her read as much as she wanted. Now we are all out of the house, I know she reads 300+ books a year. She keeps track.
    I don’t know why she reads other than to escape what was a rough early married life. But she found something rewarding enough in it that the necessity of reading was firmly communicated to me very early on. I know read almost out of a moral obligation, as well as for research ( I have a small in home business) pleasure and escape. I do sometimes find myself skimming, and a frequently read audio books on 1.5 speed. Unless it’s something I love, like a good piece of fiction, then I listen/read at normal speed and enjoy it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I looked for the test to link to it. I think I was so shocked that I forgot to save it somewhere. But I found so many tests online, and each test had at least one question that taught me something surprising about myself. So I recommend just taking whatever tests you find – it’s interesting. And they are all short, of course.

      Penelope

  3. JeanN
    JeanN says:

    I recently saw the new movie version of Fahrenheit 451 and how mass media displaces reading. I often feel that we’re living thru similar times only now it’s YouTube. Apparently there’s a stat that over 40% of people never read another book after they graduate from university/college. Encourage reading as it’s becoming a lost focus and it’s the fastest way to advance one’s fortunes.

    • penelope Trunk
      penelope Trunk says:

      That statistic has been around for a long time. My family owned a bookstore And we’d hear that all the time. Also women buy almost all the books.

      So maybe books were never really something for mass distribution. Only a small percentage of people read for pleasure.

      Penelope

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      If you can’t find something to learn on YouTube then you should probably watch a YouTube tutorial about how to use a search engine.

      There are many creative, engaging, fascinating videos available. A lot of them are from people who might never have made it past the cultural gatekeepers who run book publishers.

  4. Shaina Keren
    Shaina Keren says:

    Penelope, you’re a brilliant parent, educator, and coach. And human.
    I love this, puts so many prices together for me. As a parent with a Masters in Education I find your explanation so sensible, I’m amazed I didn’t hear this yet.
    Thanks for the eye-opener!
    And forget Apple pie, Jews specialize in the potato Kugel department. Hands down.

  5. Abigail
    Abigail says:

    This is true. I found out I was dyslexic as a mature student on an MA in Writing. I queued up to get help and when I said my degree and age they were like ??? I’d had a dyslexic breakdown and I realised the only reason I’d been functioning was because I read so much. I then realised that words were symbols for me. The wasn’t t-h-e it’s THE.I learnt to read from reading.

    I’d had hints when I was growing up but there was no time for that in my household, you just had to keep up.

    When I’m distressed I look at books to comfort myself, just staring at the books in a bookstore helped when my Dad died. It’s always the first place I go for help, “there must be a book…” now it doesn’t even matter if it’s related subject matter, I just need a good book.

    So when I had the breakdown/breakthrough I went back to books for help again only instead of reading a book a day, a single page took me half an hour and that was just reading the page, nevermind understanding it. I realised that I got by before because I read and was always reading everything-packets, adverts, all the time, 8-9 books a week and I’d stopped doing that hence the breakdown. The book that helped most at the time was “The Dyslexic Advantage” it helped me understand me, how my memory is episodic.

    There’s a difference between
    1. Reading a book to finish it, duration/stamina
    2. Reading to understand
    3. Reading for connection.

    Nowadays I have to go for connection only, whereas I was mostly 1 or 2 before as priority.
    I’m currently ‘reading’ “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire” by Akala which is a great book, but as much as I want to do all three, I’ve had to settle for just connecting for resonance. The subject material isn’t foreign to me but somehow the book is impenetrable from a finishing and understanding POV. I float above it. I never know when or what this will happen with, it just does.

    Not knowing I was dyslexic has always made work hard because I was stubborn and traditional work isn’t my thing but because of the reading I could good fake it. Now I’m at a crossroads and my dyslexic sensors are saying “enough of this malarkey, no more.”

    Things that help, writing. I messed up at university because I adopted my ex’s style of revising, reading everything 4x. My preferred retention style is to write. But the intensity of the information cracked my old ways of coping apart. I see this happen alot with students in my current job. The jump to Uni messes them up.

    I start a new job and look crazy for a month because I write everything and use lots of different colour pens. The more I understand, the number of colours reduces.
    I don’t tell people I’m dyslexic, not from shame, but because I embrace that it’s how I am and it’s where my Genius is.

    Drawing figure eights when I read helps. If I find my concentration being chased away, I trace out figure 8s on a page and it helps bring me back in to focus. I also do it on post-it notes and have them around my desk at work.

    Knowing there’s a difference between writing and editing. I’m writing today, this comment is writing, I’m not editing today, the edit flow didn’t get up this morning. I’m cool with that.

    Learning how to touch type.

    Meeting my dyslexic doppelganger – We’d both be happy wearing the same clothes day in day out. You have to find how you process best.

    I also used to stumble in speaking English alot until I moved to Japan for two years and somehow the symbolic nature of Japanese and reading it sorted that out.

    I write my dreams down every morning as a way to knit back into the world. When I don’t do it it’s hard for me to comprehend as I go through the day.

    Etymology also helps too, connecting to word roots satisfies something in me that makes it easier to know without understanding everything.

    Workplace-wise, it gives me a unique perspective and heads-up on ins and outs of people and situations which I need yo leverage to my better advantage but life pre-breakthrough is lost to me, I can’t retain information the way I used to but I now have greater access to more info, data, from subtleties, I prefer this way.

    Thanks P.

    Abigail

  6. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I learned recently that at my kids’ school the kids with dyslexia use coloured overlays for reading and this makes a big difference to their reading experience. Is that related to what you describe?

    This post makes me realise how much I don’t know about dyslexia.

  7. Blandy Fisher
    Blandy Fisher says:

    Very sly, Penelope. You don’t write about politics. Until today. Salud. I’ll be marching on Saturday.

  8. Michelle Sligh
    Michelle Sligh says:

    This article shows your complete ignorance on the subject of dyslexia. Dyslexia is not on the autism spectrum though many with autism have dyslexia. You are acting very irresponsibly by putting that statement out there and need to retract it immediately. There is zero data in this article to back up anything you have said. Do some research before you tackle such an important topic.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Did you click the link? It’s pretty good, or you can google dyslexia and autism. You’ll find a lot. Which you mean get still disagree with, but you’d be hard pressed to say there is no relation.

      Penelope

      • Michelle Sligh
        Michelle Sligh says:

        Penelope,
        Thank you for your response! I actually did read the article in your link, and you are making a huge leap. I just spent an hour trying to find another article to back up your claim, and I cannot find one. just in case my years of research have led me astray, I would love to see more on this topic., so please reply with more links if you have them. Yes, autism and dyslexia are often correlated because many with autism also have dyslexia, but those with dyslexia are not on the autism spectrum. Hyperdyslexia is something that exists in the autism world but is not at all related to dyslexia in any way except for the fact that it involves reading and that they are both genetic. Hyperdyslexia and dyslexia are completely unrelated. If you disagree, I ask you to show me data proving otherwise because I cannot find any showing the scientific relationship. I ask you to please retract the statement that dyslexia is on the autism spectrum. There are enough myths about dyslexia out there that I fight every day. I have to fight so hard for my kids to get what they need at school, and this does not help. It could potentially do a lot of harm. Thank you.

        • Mark
          Mark says:

          Interesting “conflict” here…

          As someone on the “mild” end of the spectrum who reads a lot and does comprehend, I’ll add that it seems to be increasingly clear that these spectrum disorders do not seem to have hard stops that allow for the clean categorization people prefer. There may be hundreds or more genetic factors that combine to create these not-so-unusual human conditions.

          Michelle – here is what I think. You as a mother are clearly offended by Penelope’s errant headline title but it seems that the headline might be what drew you to her blog via a search engine or something? P is media personality (and professional) and the dissonant headline is intentional (and kind of catchy). I’ve abandoned her blog several times because there is a lot of nonsense but in a world where so much of what is written is boring she still stands out as worth checking in on now and then. She isn’t likely to give a hoot about your child or your pain, especially as it seems to be a public school-related issue. Many forms of ASD have lo-instinctive-empathy components (different from cognitive empathy) and your problems are simply not going to be of real concern to her. Just how it is…

          These spectrum conditions are all so poorly understood that it seems to me we are still at a stage where open discussion might help advance cognitive empathy where we all begin to learn to be more accepting of neurological differences.

          As someone with only moderate ASD related difficulties I’ll add that if you expect public schools systems to really “get” those with differences than we are living on different planets. I don’t see how autism or not-autism even matters.

          If I might for a moment be allowed to be inflammatory myself, I’ll add that the kids who are losing their minds and attacking and killing fellow students often seem to have some kind of spectrum disorder. In part, they seem, to me, to be taking out their frustrations on the institutions that give massive lip service to diversity and acceptance but who fail these kids who want to be social and accepted but don’t know how. So much room for improvement on this front…

          I have empathy (cognitive) for any child or adult who needs help and can’t get it but we are still in the infancy of learning how to help people with all sorts of spectrum disorders. The real solution, in my opinion, resides in educating and teaching cognitive empathy to everyone. And there is a critically important role in this for public school systems but with our current system so strongly biased to the intolerant political left it doesn’t seem even remotely likely that this battleship-sized behemoth can make a turn towards tolerance and acceptance of differences much less teach it to others.

          For now the rule seems to be “help yourself” if you have a child with exceptional needs. Yes, try to change the future for the better, working within the system even, but realize that immediate change is not in the cards – which rules out change in time to help someone who needs it immediately. I’m not P’s biggest fan but don’t blame her for institutional failures.

          And…it seems clear to me that most people marching for something are really marching against the others. That is a real shitty way to understand another persons perspective. Empathy-based hatred…In an anthropological sense it is signaling “like me” to those walking next to you which tend to reinforce your opinions that the “others” are wrong and maybe even need to be eliminated. Remember history.

          • Michelle sligh
            Michelle sligh says:

            I’m not the one offended. I’m just the one who deals with data and facts. It is irresponsible and destructive to dump an entire other syndrome on dyslexia. This has nothing to do with the left or the right. this is the case of a blogger who took a leap that is dangerous.

  9. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I figured out how to read when I was three. (That was long enough ago that when I entered Kindergarten my teacher really hated it that I was reading and discouraged it. She also forced me to write with my right hand, as I wrote with whichever hand was closest to the crayon.) Yet in later grades I was criticized for my so-so reading comprehension.

    I prefer reading short things. In the 80s and 90s I subscribed to this terrific science-fiction short-story zine (Aboriginal Science Fiction, anybody remember it?) and loved every issue, until it went defunct. Today I read a lot of blogs. Yet I read about 10-12 books a year. However, since I got out of college I vastly prefer nonfiction to fiction. I read to learn rather than to have a good experience with a story.

    My handwriting was crap at first, but since high school it’s legible and I think quite lovely.

    My mom is absolutely classically dyslexic; she transposes letters in words even today at age 73. I’ve never done that, ever. But after reading this post I’m not so sure I’m not “on the dyslexia spectrum.”

    But I’m not sure what to do with this info, as I feel like I’ve figured out my life.

  10. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Today I am moved to comment, to say that I like the all other comments, especially the longer ones. I have nothing to add to theirs, but I wanted them all to feel heard.

  11. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,
    Ultimately, what you read should change you in some way. The change may be imperceptible or significant, long-term or short-term, and these are predicated on the impact/importance of the ideas in whatever you read.
    Good lit broadens the mind, but for the effect to be lasting we usually need to be exposed more than once to the ideas that we read.
    I love this article since it shows that it’s the ideas that matter, not the hours spent with your nose in the book.
    My2centsworth.

  12. Mark
    Mark says:

    Penelope and others:

    Some of you might be helped if you look into Dr. Treffert’s work on hyperlexia, savant syndrome, and the autism spectrum. Dr. T wrote a short book on hyperlexia called:

    Hyperlexia Manual: A Guide to Children Who Read Early

    Treffert is better known for his work with savant syndrome as he was one of the consultants for the “Rainman” movie back in the late 80s but he has an adult hyperlexic daughter and from what I know he is very convinced that hyperlexia is often mistaken for Asperger’s and more traditional ASD’s. And, that there are core differences in treatment protocols. Stuff like that…

    All of you who are early readers who have trouble with comprehension might change your lives for the better by downloading or buying Treffert’s booklet from the Treffert Center at agnesian.com.

    The guy is a real live saint and straight-shooter who always has people’s best interest at heart. Plus, he is pretty brilliant himself.

  13. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Re: Radical Reader.

    All the time that radicals have been rending their garments about the injustice of capitalism, per capita income has gone up 30 TIMES, from $3 per day to $150 per day in today’s dollars. Google: “Great Enrichment.”

    Who knew?

  14. Denise Zucco
    Denise Zucco says:

    This is mindblowing to me as well and I am rethinking my life and my childrens. Both of my teenagers have successfully moved through high school, taking AP (college level) and honors classes and neither has read a single book that was assigned to them. It horrifies me because I loved the books I read in HS. I do think the internet and the resources available today, have aided in this but still… My son has Aspergers and I feel that I have tendencies. Both of us have reading comprehension and auditory processing issues. We have had full neuro/psych testing done on him 3 times and this wasn’t identified but it still makes a lot of sense to me. I definitely would fall asleep all the time trying to read textbooks in college. My daughter says she has ADD because she can’t concentrate reading. Is all of this connected?!

  15. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    I have dyslexic husband and daughter and my husband is from a family with rampant dyslexia. Dyslexia is a processing disorder where written language gets garbled on the way to the brain, and sometimes they get garbled coming back out again. My dyslexic kid is great at engineering because there are more numbers than letters and she processes those fine.

    I disagree that it’s on the autism spectrum except that both it and autism are processing disorders.

  16. Emily Kramer
    Emily Kramer says:

    I definitely understand what I’m reading but I don’t have the same understanding as when people who are not dyslexic read the same material. i can’t simplify – for better or for worse!

  17. Dee
    Dee says:

    Lord how do I say this? Twelve worlds of wrong!
    I’ve worked with dyslexic and hyperlexuc Kids since age 22. I’m 53. Your sample size is 4!
    Hyperlexia and dyslexia are opposite!! Dyslexia is an inability to decode!! Reading comprehension is typically an issue for kids with language challenges some of whom are quite hyperlexic. Reading interest is an issue for EVERYONE. many disorders will affect this most
    Prominently adhd which is comorbid w a lot. In my estimation at least 15% of the population has a.d.d and it usually hurts personal relationships and school more than career if there’s intelligence or passion driving the person. Bipolar people also have focus issues of no low focus vs hyperfocus and tend to be far better writers than readers. Hyperlexia and dyslexia happen in different brain areas. You are wrong and write so much pseudoscience. A lot is discipline and goals. You can’t be 90% of scientists without dull reading. Same in finance. If you like your job you do it. You’re pushing standardized tests which are the king of dull. Mimics real life Zero. Real life is far more specialized.
    Ps dyslexia is not inherently on autism spectrum. Nor is hyperlexia. Both can overlap w autism but majority don’t in either case though I’d say in a majority of really precocious hyperlexia cases like reading by age 1, which I’ve seen, you’ll have autism/asbergers often very high cognitive functioning

  18. Lina
    Lina says:

    Hi Penelope, I rarely comment here, but I am your very avid reader, and just today I read your post from 2006 about telling stories in interviews. You recommended John Gardner’s book “The Art of Fiction” as an inspiration for storytelling in interviews. Would you still recommend it and if so, could you elaborate on that?

  19. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Yes. It’s a timeless book. I wrote that post so long ago, but it’s great advice, if I must say so myself. The thing about advice is we give the best advice when we are in the throes of struggling to do the thing we are giving advice about. I was learning to tell stories in interviews when I wrote that post and mentioned John Gardner’s book.

    So often we assume the best advice comes from people who have done it and succeeded, but I’m not so sure that’s right. And the post you’re talking about reminds me to seek out people who write about advice from the middle of their struggle, not from a safe perch far away from the scene.

    Penelope

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