Reader’s Block

Sometimes I just can’t read straight.

Most of the time this is because my glasses are smudgy or not on my face. Often it’s because I’ve stayed up reading past my bedtime and can barely keep my eyes open. Occasionally it’s because I have competing distractions or Big Thoughts that take up more than their share of my headspace. They’re greedy and inconsiderate, and right when I need to distract myself with a good book, the ability to do so escapes me. I lose all focus, which frustrates me even more. It seems like the worst thing in the world at the time but after a few days of replacing reading with Xbox and David Attenborough documentaries, my groove usually comes back of its own accord and normal services recommence along my 12-track mind.

Still, that period when I’m unable to read straight is a mild form of torture. Whatever problem that’s exhausting my mental capacity is made worse by my inability to lean on my favourite pastime. In trying to find a silver lining here, I suppose it reminds me that I have other interests that deserve attention occasionally, and sometimes I have to get a little creative to drag myself out of the funk by reading things I may not otherwise. Call it a useful exercise in diversification.

A few years ago I was in hospital with some broken bones, including multiple facial fractures. Hospital is a pretty boring place to be at the best of times (as though there’s ever a “best time” to be in hospital, even if you are only visiting) and the entertainment packages are non-existent. You’re not there for a holiday, after all, although they’re pretty cool with the BYOBook policy. Naturally I had my dear old mum bring me in a stack to wile away the hours, though these soon proved to be wildly ambitious. I couldn’t read more than a paragraph without immediately forgetting it. But hey, what did I expect? My short-term memory was shot. I couldn’t have told you what I had for breakfast. (With my faculties now restored, I can tell you with confidence that every meal I had for eight days was chocolate milk.)

Trying to remain optimistic, I lowered the bar a little. If I couldn’t handle a book, perhaps a magazine would do the trick. In hindsight I should probably have chosen something a little less demanding than National Geographic, and I was met with exactly the same problem. The pretty pictures did nothing to cheer me up and I burst into tears at the dawning realisation that I was in pain, bed-ridden and unable to read. It was a miserable state of affairs.

For all my shortcomings, I have to say I have exceptional taste in friends, and it was they who came to my rescue. I vaguely remember sobbing about my predicament when friends came to visit, and don’t recall suggesting or asking for a solution, since as far as I could see, I was doomed. But my good friends have passed a rigorous screening process, meaning they are all bookish, empathetic and resourceful. Completely independent of one another, two friends burnt an eclectic selection of audiobooks onto CDs for me, and unearthed discmen that probably hadn’t been of any use since the 90s but were perfect for right now. And their book choices were ever so thoughtful: from one of my favourites, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because it’s familiar and I love it, to Marian Keyes, because Milan Kundera is hard work even when you don’t have a head injury. And Harry Potter, because obviously.

And then Twitterature. This volume is an orange Popular Penguin full of classics condensed into fragments of 140 characters each, the maximum length of a Tweet. The giver of this gift (as well as discman and CDs) is an English teacher, and I’ve no doubt it pained her to buy it. Under ordinary circumstances, we would both have turned our noses up at such wanton butchery of literature. But they were desperate times, and it wasn’t until months later that I realised just how considerate the gift of this book was. I could still read the classics for which I yearned, and she obviously had a much more accurate grasp on my current abilities. I couldn’t read a book, or a magazine, or even a page, but she got me through those dark days 140 characters at a time. And when that became too much, when all I could do was lie there and wait to be drugged up once more to my swollen little eyes, there was always someone to read me a story.

In time I managed to muster the brainpower for a Sudoku. My mum went out and bought a book of them for me, and while a fair amount of cheating ensued, I got through the whole thing. I read trashy magazines then newspaper articles, poetry then short stories, novellas and then, finally, novels. I now feel like I should have read an encyclopaedia to illustrate some sort of full-circle metaphor, from Twitter to Britannica with everything in between. But I have a smartphone, which really does cover both.

And hey, here’s something neat: I started writing this post because I found myself in exactly the pickle I described at the beginning. Big Thoughts had taken over the reading part of my brain so I decided to start writing. An instance where I would quite literally rather be reading, but it just wasn’t working for me. And now that I’ve done something else for a little while instead, I think I might be able to get back to it. There’s nothing like a reminder of that time I almost died AND couldn’t read to put things in perspective. I’ve also had David Attenborough on in the background and do not wish to discount his contribution. Maybe a few hours of being unable to read isn’t the worst thing in the world after all. It has to be close, and certainly makes a bad situation worse, but I’ll probably survive it.

I think I’d better listen to a Harry Potter audiobook though, just to be safe. It’s just not worth the risk.

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