I Can Read. Can You?

TL;DR

An anecdote regarding my perceived inability to concentrate on the written word, the cause, and a broader comment on our societal predisposition to drift through life in a state of perma-lassitude.

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What do you read, my lord?

Words, words, words.

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Hamlet (2.2.182–83)

For mmmmmany years I labelled myself ‘a book collector.’ I loved the idea of reading Books about Things. I had the sense there were many Things yet to learn, and I romanticised the idea of developing a deeper understanding of the world through the literary genius of others.

The problem – and hence the term ‘collector’ – arose when I would attempt to read Books about Things. I found it almost impossible to move from one page to the next. I would blankly stare at the words, words, words as one would a menu when particularly hungry. I couldn’t parse content for any length of time. Soon enough, the book would be set upon a stack of other dust-collecting books, and would remain ignored until the romantic whim of purchase again took hold and the dusty stack would grow yet more precarious.

When asked if I had read [insert title], my response would invariably be that I started it. I carried this burden with me for maybe 15 years: Books don’t work for me. I am an auditory learner(?). Blah blah blah. This all coincided with full-time retail shift work. A schedule that altered from week to week, where things like clopens (close at night/open next day) could exist. A significant portion of this work was customer facing – troubleshooting technical issues with various electronic devices. As business grew so did demand. With this demand came management demands. Specifically: multi-tasking. The need to talk to multiple customers at once and to solve their technical issues in a more efficient and more timeous manner.

This lead to starting the day with, “How can I help?” and devolved by noon into muttering, “What does this idiot want?”, regardless of my intentions, how sunny their disposition or pure their heart. Humans became roadblocks in my day, preventing me from going home to fall on my couch face first, play video games or drink hard with colleagues (read as: close friends). I would do everything within my power to make them go away, but this would not always happen quickly. There would be occasions where deep troubleshooting was required or attentive management of an emotionally charged situation – think a failed hard drive containing a thesis, life’s work, or photographs of dead loved ones. It was also possible to see “I want to speak to the manager” types a mile off, carrying a briefcase full of bewildering expectations they had invented all by themselves like a clever little snowflake. These expectations I would somehow have to manage into a more reasonable frame. This was often met with aloof and extremely belligerent stupidity, and would eventually lead to, “I want to speak to the manager,” where the whole episode would be re-hashed from start to finish in my presence as I counted the nanoseconds until my next day off.

Let’s skip forward to August 2016. I found myself in a discussion about homeschooling children. The man I was talking to noted that when his kids were first pulled out of school they were entirely disinterested and listless, making learning any curricula challenging. This went on for a week or three (memory fails me), but after a while the kids were changed. They became eager and attentive for the most part and blasted through their work and continued until they overtook where they should be in a school environment. It was at this point in the conversation the penny dropped for me.

“HUH.” Said I.

“Go on…” Said he.

“Well. I left the working week in early March of this year to do my own thing. For the first couple of weeks I was useless. I just about had the capacity to concentrate on what I was doing in a video game, but couldn’t really think straight. I felt the Sword of Damocles above me, though was powerless to act or to produce anything of meaning. I found out the video game I was playing at the time was based on a book series and for reasons I am yet to fathom, I ordered the first in the volume and Dune (because everyone should own a copy at all times, and it was an old favourite I had read in pre-shift work days).

Shortly after the books arrived, I took to reading before bed. The first was completed in a matter of days. Dune, some 890-odd pages with very small type went down in a week or two. I was amazed. My wife was amazed. I continued. Ordered more from the series and smashed through them in short order.”

“You must have been exhausted before that. Like my kids.”

And this was the point. I realise now I had spent my school years, and a significant portion of my adult life telling myself reading wasn’t for me, wishing I could be smarter but that books weren’t my medium and generally feeling afflicted with a sub-par intellect.

Turns out, we humans have a finite energy resource. Without genuine renewal and recovery practices, we become a wraith. Drifting from day to day, unable to connect completely to our surroundings, our people or ourselves. That is no way to live and yet, it appears the societal norm by demand. Fortunately, it’s within our power to change. The first step is to notice.

As soon as we begin straining at the shackles of under-sleeping, under-eating, over-training, adhering to conditions that expect us to be good little machines or wearing our exhaustion like a badge of honour, we become less wraithlike. The world will appear clearer. For some of us, that will mean opening a book and managing to enjoy the written word for the first time in a long time.

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