Saturday, January 24, 2009

learning to read

I don't remember learning how to read. I just did. I remember reading Spot books to myself before I went to school and I remember coming home from school with my first reading book ("The big red lorry went up the hill..."). I've always been a book worm, always the one tucked away in a corner, lost in a book. I read voraciously, anything and everything, had the usual phase of finding a book I loved and then seeking out everything by the same author. I think when I went to secondary school, my first method of assessing the school library was to find out how many P G Wodehouse books they had that I hadn't already read.

I carried on reading. I didn't plan to take English Literature A-Level, but when I picked it up a month into sixth form, I discovered I'd read more over the summer than people who had planned to take it, which made me wonder why I hadn't thought of it in the first place. I loved English and the lessons kept me sane through my A-levels. They were discursive and thought-provoking in a way that Maths, Physics and Chemistry just weren't.

I read less during my Physics degree. There just wasn't time in term, but I did still read lots in the holidays. I wrote some poems then too, even got elected JCR Poet Laureate for a year.

Jump forward a few years, and I started studying with the Open University while working. At first, just for fun, but as I started to find my feet and get into the course, studying literature become something I loved doing and was good at, something I wanted to pursue more seriously.

But something changed as I studied. By my third year of OU, a sort of panic was beginning to set in whenever I had to read for study, especially text books. I'd look at a page and find myself speeding up, getting faster and faster and more panicky, wondering how much I much I was taking in. I rarely read anything that wasn't for my course, and when I did, I felt guilty about it. I dismissed the panic as pressure of time. After all, I was also working full time and studying had to get squeezed in between working and the rest of life. I'd work in short bursts, often relying on the pressure of an approaching deadline to get myself motivated to write.

When I left work to start my MA, I initially enjoyed the freedom to read. My course texts were varied and interesting, especially the 20th century ones. I tried reading Ulysses in one day (didn't make it, but got quite a good way through), read in the library, at home, in bed, at work while waiting for videos to process. It was fun. But the panic was still there, especially when I sat down to write an essay. I sailed closer and closer to the wind with my deadlines, producing things at the very last minute, and always conscious that they weren't as good as I wanted them to be.

By the time I got really ill, books just weren't working anymore. Although I did read (and love) Bleak House during a week in bed, that was probably the last time I managed to read something complex. A few weeks after that, I couldn't read, couldn't think coherently, couldn't do anything much. Somehow, over the summer, I managed to read and write enough to produce an essay on The Water Babies, a review and a dissertation proposal. I'm not entirely sure how. As my ability to concentrate came back, I read a bit - mostly detective stories, old favourites, the odd bit of fantasy fiction and not too taxing comic fiction. I'm not sure how I'd define it. Not quite chick lit. The sort of novels with tragi-comic families and adolescent heroines. Lots of Kate Atkinson. I didn't feel up to tackling anything big, say, Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy, which I've wanted to complete reading since I studied The Ghost Road in my OU course, or Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, which has been sat on my to-read pile since I found it second-hand, or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I've been halfway through for over a year. There are lots of books I've started and failed to finish - Nights at the Circus, Lud-in-the-Mist, A Confederacy of Dunces, all of which sat by my bed for months, waiting for me to feel up to reading them again.

I still don't. There are signs of hope. I read Coraline in one go on a train journey at the beginning of January. I'm slowly working my way through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when I'm not feeling too sad to read it. But I haven't yet approached anything relevant to my MA, or even re-read my dissertation proposal, or properly read the marker's comments. I'm scared. Scared that I'll never re-capture my love of reading. Scared that some part of my identity is gone forever. Scared of pushing myself too hard and becoming ill again. I know I need to retrain my brain to concentrate and that I can't go straight back to tackling big serious books again, but I don't quite know where to start. I'm also not very motivated to get back to my dissertation. The topic is too close to my heart. There are too many aspects of it that are important to me, that I want to get right and say something worth saying and thought-provoking about, and yet I'm also sick of it because I've been living with those same issues for the past three years and I'd really rather do something else, that mattered less. I don't know whether to give it up; pick another dissertation topic (if I can) or just plough on through the difficulties. I feel like I could do with a reading coach. My supervisor, I suppose, might fulfill that role, but I'm scared of her. And I'm not good at asking for help.

I don't really know what to do. Pray, and live and try to do what I can. And ask God to help me conquer my fears.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

so, I'm no expert, but I empathize with you. I don't know what your dissertation is over so I can't speak to that. But if I were having difficulty reading, which would be tragic for me as well, I would go back to my favorite childhood stories and start there. Recapture the giddiness in Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss and other very short children books. Then I would find a passage in the Bible that I knew very well and half try to memorize it and half try to analyze it.

These are things that I do for myself. For you, I will pray. You'll be better soon. You'll have an epiphany and everything will fall into place. I just know it. And I can't wait for that day, when I link over to your blog and it says, "Ah! The storm has past! Here is my rainbow!" It'll be soon; I just know it :)