Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Good reads/good readers


This entry offers a little personal disclosure in the hope that it may be helpful to someone else.

I have always been a slow reader. Very slow. Painfully slow. This may come as shocking to my friends and family who know that I am a literature professor, that I dedicated eleven years to university life as a student and another nine as an instructor at various post- secondary institutions--- that my adult life has  been largely dedicated to the printed word.

For years, I thought I was just a slow reader, that if I just tried harder, if I could just focus myself better, then I would read faster. And then for years I thought maybe I just wasn't paying much attention to what I read. I tend to be preoccupied all the time with ideas and various projects, and maybe I needed to stop multi-tasking and focus on the task at hand. Oddly, I have always loved reading, even if  a very slow reader, even if at times I was very frustrated when I read. I love a good story. I love words and the way that words can shape a world. I love the sound of language as it tells stories.

At university, it was a major source of frustration. But, as many people with learning disabilities are, I was embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. I kept this limitation to myself. In the process, I unwittingly denied myself access to help. Of course, at this point in my life I didn't know that this was a bonafide learning disability. I just thought I was slow-- and unfocused-- a realization  that lead to self-esteem issues and an overall lack of confidence. 

Between 1999 and 2003 I worked full time to support myself while finishing graduate school at place called Wavepoint. It was a spin off business from a research project at the University of Alberta that offered neuro-bio-feedback to children and adults with AD/HD. It was a wonderful place, filled with warm, caring individuals. One day, for fun, I had a co-worker do a complete EEG of my brain and its activity while doing tasks that required focusing- such as math and....reading. We used to do this sort of thing. It was a good learning experience for us and was fun too. By this point in my life, and from what I had learned while working there, I actually thought that I would show obvious signs of Attention Deficit, that this might explain why I really struggled with reading, with focusing on reading as I thought. I was ready for this revelation, and had even accepted that I was more than likely afflicted with AD/HD. At this time, my struggles with reading were really becoming problematic, as I was in full thesis writing mode which meant a lot of research and reading. And it never seemed that I could do this reading fast enough. I was experiencing a lot of pressure, and I was starting to crumble under this pressure.

It turned out that I did not have Attention Deficit. But the EEG did show something else. I have a tracking problem. It was very clear as a muscle movement pattern on the EEG printout. When my boss explained this to me it all made sense. 30 years of my life and frustrations with the printed word finally made sense. A tracking problem means that my eyes have difficulty tracking from one line to the next when reading. The eyes get lost and end up reading the same lines or words over and over, or they jump around the page in a disorderly fashion-- and they get stuck in one place on the page. There is some good information to be found on tracking here. Coupled with difficulties with tracking, I also have an astigmatism. Double whammy.

It is amazing that I finished grade school with this disorder, but I completed a PhD without knowing that this is what was slowing me down. And it did slow me down. It did cause me all kinds of frustrations. I felt like I could never read enough, or keep up with the required reading. I felt as if I had to work twice as hard as the other students. And I probably did have to. It was exhausting. But I am very, very stubborn and driven. And I've never been much of a quitter. Because I did not know the cause of my problems until I was pretty much finished the PhD, I didn't give up. I might have dropped out if I had known earlier, feeling defeated by my own biology. If I had known years earlier, I may not have gone to university at all. In some ways, not knowing was both a blessing and a curse. I didn't know I had limitations, so while they frustrated me, I didn't allow them to limit me. I doggedly carried on, blissfully ignorant. At the same time, I didn't realize there were strategies I could have been using to help myself get through the enormous reading requirements of a PhD.

Recently, I have started buying ebooks and reading them on an iphone. I started doing this so that I can nurse my baby and read easily at the same time, in the dark, any where, any time. Also, when traveling, I don't need to lug heavy books. I can just take my cell phone. I've also recently noticed that I've been reading a lot-- that I've been finishing a lot of books really quickly and effortlessly. This realization has lead me to believe that perhaps the altered format of a book into the smaller space of an electronic reader- in particular a phone  and not a tablet-- has had a positive impact on my ability to read. I don't have as much difficulty tracking in this format. Hooray! But please note that the tablet does not work this positively. Its format for reading is too large- too close to the size of a book. It has to be a phone-- not necessarily an iphone- I just happen to have an iphone--I don't work for Apple, nor do I wish to endorse their product specifically- just the idea of reading in this small format.Any phone app for any phone would do.

I'm sharing this because there may be others-- adults and kids-- whose reading difficulties could be alleviated by the different format provided by e readers. It might be worth a try. I'm glad I persevered, that I didn't quit or give up when the demands of academic life were nearly too much. I hope this inspires others.

Let me know what you are reading!

This month, I've been reading Patrick deWitts's The Sisters Brothers, Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, and Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

xo Jo

No comments: