Revathi Suresh: Learning to Read Again

I stopped reading about three years ago. Not that I was ever a voracious reader—just a moderately hungry one. But I used to read fast and couldn’t bear to put down a good book till I’d turned the last page. Then I began to notice that barely a week or so after finishing a book, I was unable to remember the details. I wasn’t able to recall exact events or the order in which they occurred. I only seemed to have a hazy recollection of the story’s outline. It really jolted me because I felt if I really liked a book, I should have been able to recall it better than just being left with a memory of having enjoyed it.

Initially I thought that maybe I was just reading too much and that I should space it out a bit, so I began to give it three or four days between one book and the next. I read two books a month instead of three or four. But even that didn’t seem to work because over a period of time I found I was distracted while reading. I’d read the words but nothing would register, which meant going back and reading the same page/para/sentence over and over again. I tried to breathe deep between books and not panic. It didn’t help—there was no comprehension, no absorption and finally, no interest. I worried that my book-reading years were behind me but the more I worried, the more I tried to focus, the more I tried to force myself to concentrate, the more I lost the plot. Finally I just stopped reading.

For a while this was ok because by then I’d begun to grapple with my own writing and my own book. Writing it, staying with it and not giving up, was a huge challenge and I refused to buckle because at that time it was my only consolation. I could tell myself that it was alright to not read, because look, you’re writing instead!

But the truth is that I’d lost one of my greatest pleasures. I would look wistfully at my children reading books that I’d enjoyed long ago and vicariously experience the thrill of having been there once upon a time by listening to their animated discussions. Then, something a friend said to me recently made me think that maybe I could still have a future that included reading. Don’t worry about remembering things, he said. Don’t put yourself under that kind of pressure. If you are enjoying the book when you are reading it, why worry about whether you’ll be able to do a scene by scene recall later? You’ll remember only the gist of it, so what? Why deprive yourself of something that be such an enriching experience?

So now I’m trying to put together a list of books to read with the help of my children. It’s a great feeling because it seems like just the other day when I used to pick out books for them and it’s fitting, somehow, that they help get their mom back on track. Because I insisted ‘baby steps only’, most of the books they’ve chosen for me are children’s and YA and I’m looking forward to working my way down that piece of paper till I’ve caught up with their favourite books.

Yesterday, after a long time, I finished reading a book in one day, between chores. It was Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. If you haven’t read it already, do. It’s a YA book and what a lovely one at that. A great one to start with, if, like me, you’re teaching yourself to read. It’s a slim book with large font and simple language. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a simple book. Beyond that, I don’t wish to sum it up—there are thousands of reviews on the Internet and you can help yourself to any of them. The second book I read was Wonder by R J Palacio. And really, the title is the book. I’m glad though that I read Stargirl before I read Wonder—both books are about being different and not fitting in but with Stargirl it’s about being different on the inside and it had, for me, a somewhat otherworldly, mystic quality. But what happens if, like August Pullman in Wonder, you’re different on the outside and the choice to be that way is not yours in the first place? The book is written from multiple points of view and each of the voices is distinctive and the characters are so real, it’s like you could step out on to the street and bump into one of them. How easy all these terrific writers are making it for children to pick up a book and immerse themselves in other people’s lives. The language is beautiful, simple and day to day, occasionally poetic, but there are no big words and complicated sentences, without dumbing anything down. All this is a big revelation to me. That you can actually write great literature that doesn’t sound like great literature!

Two books that left me with a lump in my throat and a smile on my face and a great sense of achievement. Yay! I read my first real book in years!

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2 comments

  1. I started wondering whether I had spoken to you about the guilt I feel when I am not able to continue reading but at the same time picking up books and storing it. Also on going back and forth ritual, forcing mind to get it registered with the content which has just been read but unable to. I started to feel that the age may be a factor when it starts dulling the faculties leaving you with little choice.
    But a new light, just read for the present content and enjoy, forgetting that you need to remember every word or for that matter the context , is slowly dawning…
    Very nicely worded article bringing out the real dilemma…

  2. You know this has been happening to me to. Reading, actually devouring books feverishly and keeping one in line so that when I’m done I have another to fill that space…. and yes its registered that I no longer remember the details. Glad to see that you’re back to reading and yes Revathi there are so many great authors out there, writing with fluidity and making the magic of words seem effortless. It makes me happy to read these books, too and it makes me a believer.

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