I Need To Talk About This

Big Book Fear: Being a Disabled Bookworm

You may or may not know that I am both dyslexic and dyspraxic. While these Specific Learning Difficulties may seem inconsequential to you if you are neurotypical, they are life altering for me. Unlike most dyslexic people, my general reading speed is very high (c.1100 words per minute) but I have actual sensorial experiences when I process text, and this can slow me down. I hear words like percussion so the process is like first acknowledging a *bang* and then processing what the sound is: “Oh that’s a drum!” This makes words, poetry, theatre, songs, and other delivered texts truly magical. I get obsessive about styles of writing that I enjoy and intuit a lot from authorial voices. So far, so good.

However, there are a number of downsides to this part of my brain. For example, when an author uses a lot of the same word or name (the Wolf Hall books/Tudor England loves a Thomas), it’s like a reading version of the hype section in a drum & bass track and I am left in limbo waiting for the beat to drop. It can lead to concentration loss and then that’s my reading session over.

While I have the capacity to read several books of any kind in a day when I need to, I get word fatigue more easily than other folx. It’s worst when moving through emails and most manageable in novels with a distinct and consistent narrator. But I am also caught out by having limited short term memory. If I get distracted or drawn into a peripheral idea, then I am lost. The drifting treasure hunt is a nightmare when I’m reading academic books because I frequently come across things I don’t know or references that I don’t recognise and suddenly I’m learning about what wallpaper was used Oscar Wilde’s bedroom and not whatever I was meant to be researching.

If I put a book down, I have a very short window to pick it up in again before I temporarily forget everything about it or have processed enough of an impression to not need to finish it. I re-read very rarely because books are like moments in time for me. They aren’t worlds I visit or frequent. They are a thought interruption and once that disturbance is profound enough, I store away the impression in a visual library in my head. Therefore, I can normally tell you what was happening in my life when I was reading a book, where I was when I read it, what the cover looked like, which bag I carried it in, and how I was feeling at the time. Functionally, there are sections in my mental library. For example, there’s a PTSD bookcase (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and a read-through of Kay Scarpetta crime series up to Scarpetta in 2008). There’s a “I read this in a tent when it rained at a folk festival” shelf (Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, To Kill A Mockingbird, Emma). There’s also a “I read this on the tube” section which takes me through all the moods, fads, and passions of my teenage years (shout out to Malorie Blackman, Alexandre Dumas and Meg Cabot for staying solid).

I have a fondness for my brain library but all of these things make chonky books (let’s say more 600 pages or epic hardbacks) feel hugely intimidating. Will I ever finish them if I start them? The audiobook is more than 24 hours so I need to set aside time or commit weeks and weeks to a single book when I could read it in a few hours. What if I get distracted? There’s so much world to hold onto. Also, how does this mesh with my preference to read 6-10 books at once? I have to micro-manage my life because I am unalterably forgetful (no short term memory), distractible, and easily overstimulated. My brain will just factory reset (blackout and then slowly re-establish all the things that were going on) as many times a day as my stress and sleep levels demand. Can I spare the headspace to read a book that might trigger any of the possible symptoms of brain overload?

I love book hype. I tend to find that my friends who are excited for a new read are effusive and generous in their love of the story, character, or world they anticipate. It can be really special to take part in and be around. But then I pick up the hardback and I begin to problematise the time, conditions, mood, and space I have for the challenge facing me. Because of how words work for me, I find it hard to exist in too many serial spaces at once so I had to finish watching the original Star Trek series (a strange story for another time) before I could really contemplate picking up Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. (This is the last novel in the Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s career under Henry VIII.)

I am almost ready to begin with my new 875-page obstacle course but I can feel the anxiety rising. If I don’t make it this weekend, when will I next pick it up? Will I care? Will I struggle with all the Thomases? Will I power through and be done in seven hours? The good news is that my copy smells great and I have bought a doughnut to have while I get stuck in. Wish me luck and solidarity to all the other people with different and unusual ways of negotiating their joy of reading.

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