No Good Read Goes Unpunished

Published on 19th April 2018

I know how to read, I’m just not good at it. Reading is a skill. It is something drilled into your head at young age. Learning to read can be compared to learning how to use a toilet, they are both viewed as fundamental to our lifestyle and in some aspects are fairly permanent. You can’t just forget how to use the toilet whenever you feel like it, it is so deeply ingrained in our heads that it often feels like instinct. The same goes for reading, how often do you walk past a sign and without thinking about it you just start reading what it says? There is no thought process, you just do it— instinct.        

Sadly, this “instinct” took me a while to develop. When my sister was in 1st grade, she was reading at a higher level than most 3rd graders. Her teachers raved about her. Every night, my parents would sit in her room and read with her. I remember pressing my ear to the wall, trying to gather every scrap of the stories I could. I wanted so badly to be able to do what my sister did with ease. I opened up the books on my shelf, but found each page to be filled to the brim with gibberish.

One day at DEAR (drop everything and read) time my desire to read was at an all time high. I ran into the book corner and picked the cover of the book that spoke to me the most. I sat next to my mom; I could see in her eyes she was waiting for me to begin spewing the beautifully written words from my copy of Honey Bunny Funny Bunny. As I opened the book, I hoped that everything would click, maybe just this once I could finally get it. Unsurprisingly, I only recognized two words on the first page. I thought back to the cover, Honey Bunny Funny Bunny was standing next to an easel. So I did what any kid would have done in that situation, I made up the story. I flipped through each page, spinning a tale about a kid-bunny who wanted no more than to be a famous painter.

This kind of behavior persisted throughout my life. In the orthodontist office I would pick the most menacing looking book and begin to “read” it to whoever I was with. Soon I started doing it not because I couldn’t read, but because I knew I could create my own story much easier than trying to figure out the one written in front of me. For a long time no one figured out my little secret, and when they did they never said anything about it (my parents likely found out from the time I was at Christmas Eve mass, picked up the bible, and started telling a story about a three-legged dog).

By the time I reached third grade, my inadequacy had become apparent. My peers had become proficient at reading and would breeze through chapter books. I, on the other hand sat in the corner reading the same sentence of Junie B. Jones over and over again, until I finally understood what it was saying. I kept trying to read, not because I wanted to be good at it, but because I wanted to find out the stories. My classmates frequently told me about the different books they would read. I remember excitedly listening to the stories and imagining reading those words myself. With the same naiveté I had reading Honey Bunny Funny Bunny with my mom, I decided I would no longer be a sub-par reader. I could only read one book in the time it took my peers to read three. So for the next few weeks, I would pick up a book and speed through it. I was easily the fastest in the class and could finish a chapter book in only two classes. However, what my peers and my teacher didn’t know was that I would finish the book and the only understanding I had of the plot was based off the photo on the cover.

Eventually, one of my teachers caught on. In fifth grade during a parent-teacher conference, my parents were notified of my reading struggle. For the next few months while every other kid got to go home after school and play, I took a SAT for elementary schoolers, reading comprehension test.

In 6th grade I was mistakenly placed in the advanced reading group. I proceeded to fail every essay and assignment about the plot-lacking novel Fly Girl. While my peers discussed the characters critically, I would quietly try to piece together what had happened in the past chapter. This trend continued as I entered 7th and 8th grade. It wasn’t that I wasn't reading the books, I just couldn’t understand what they said. I could read each word and know what it was, but I couldn't string the words together to make meaning of it. I figured out that if I really concentrated on the book I was reading, I could make sense of it. From then on I put all my efforts into reading. I was breezing through (by this I mean slowly and pensively reading) books like The Breadwinner and To Kill a Mockingbird. When I could understand the story I lit up in discussions, and was able to make meaningful connections to my own life.

For a while, my reading insufficiency seemed as though it had ceased. I knew reading didn’t come easy to me, but I no longer felt hindered by it. I made it to 11th grade, having done semi-decently in my past language arts classes. By the time I was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest I had forgotten about my past struggle. However, one night I failed to put in enough effort while reading an assigned chapter. When I went to class the next day, I was unfortunately notified that there would be pop quiz. At first I wasn’t nervous, as I had read the chapter. But once I got the test and read the questions, I realized I didn’t know a single answer. Unsurprisingly, I failed the quiz. I decided I would rather Susan think I hadn’t read the chapter, than have her know I still struggled with one of the most basic skills. This lead me to begin using audiobooks. I set the recording on two times speed and follow along in my copy, making sure to pace myself.

I am quite embarrassed to be sharing that I must perform a middle school-esque exercise, to get through a book. In some ways I find it odd that I go through this amount effort to read a book when I could much more easily read the synopsis on Sparknotes. However, this is also very telling about me. I have the desire to read the words the author wrote, and build the story from that rather than a summary. I recently read The Bell Jar, which tells the story of a young girl on the brink of insanity. Upon reading (or listening to) each word I can feel the insanity she is being brought to and understand how she was brought there. This is an understanding I couldn’t get from a sentence like “Esther wants to kill herself.” This same logic goes for books like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Reading online that Tomas and Tereza have an unhappy marriage, doesn’t begin to describe the struggles and feelings within their relationship. Each word of the book works to build a bigger picture of the depths, both good and bad,  within that marriage, something a condensed version could never do.

When defining reading in its most basic form, it nothing but a skill. A skill I am not good at. However, unlike the skill of using the toilet, there is more to reading that its superficial nature. Reading is about more than understanding the words on the page, it is about thinking critically about the story, discerning the perspectives of the characters, and admiring the style of the author (even in poorly written pieces). Despite being bad at reading, I am not a bad reader. Frankly, I never was. Since that first day at DEAR time, I have been a good reader. I wanted to think about the plot of Honey Bunny Funny Bunny, and the intentions behind the written words so badly I made up my own version of it. I wanted to read, but I didn’t have the ability. I didn’t want to read because I wanted to be good at it, I wanted to read because I wanted to know what words around me meant, and most importantly I wanted to think about it. If I was plagued with the question of what type of reader I am, my first instinct would be to respond with either “a bad one” or “a slow one.” However when viewing reading as more than the standard definition, I am a curious, invested, and perceptive reader. So no, I am not great a reading, but I am still one heck of a reader. 

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