Uncommon Reader

On Friday morning, I sit across from Elena, a soft-spoken student with a thick Cuban accent. She is a cellist and a dear friend who struggles with writing in English. She explains that she needs help with an essay assignment for one of her music theory courses. Her voice is gentle and husky, full of warmth.

She slides her paper across the table, and I pick it up. The white sheets contrast strongly with the muted color of the desk. I begin to scan her work.

“Okay, some of these sentences are very long,” I explain calmly. “Let’s try to break them into shorter ones. That will make the essay easier on the reader.”

She picks up her mechanical pencil—identifiable by the sound of the lead rattling around in the plastic casing—and writes my suggestions on her paper. I guide her through the revision process, offering changes and listening to the changes she wants to make. When we finish the two pages, she turns to me and asks, “So that was easy for you to read?”

I want to reassure her, to let her know that her English is comprehensible. “Yes, I understood what you were writing about.”

“But the font, the size, you could read it? It was easy?”

“Oh…well, it wasn’t difficult, but it was a little small. I normally ask my students to print in size 18.”

“When I came in, you were reading,” she continues. “You are always reading!”

I laugh. I had been reading Georgina Kleege’s Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. I’ve been reading this book for a while—it’s the book I carry with me for incidental reading, reading while running errands or during odd moments at work. “I love to read,” I confess. It’s not much of a confession. Anyone who has spoken to me for more than 15 minutes knows I adore reading.

“I am glad you can read so well,” Elena finishes sincerely. “You love it, and I’m glad you can do it!”

She leaves and I pick up my book, flipping to the page where a large paper clip marks my place. I begin reading and thinking about reading, the book an inch from my nose.

I read from left to right. I read avidly. I read slowly. I read with one eye. My right eye tracks lines, recognizes characters, and takes me deep into a book’s pages. My left goes along for the ride, responsible only for keeping me in three dimensions.

As with most activities, I prefer to read by dim lighting. I’ve recently discovered yellow lightbulbs, which give my room a soft, Old World glow. When I was younger, Mom would come into my dim room, see me reading, and flip on a light, “Is that better?” she’d ask cheerfully, and I’d reply, “No!” in a surly tone.

When I was a child, all my reading materials passed beneath the weight of a glass dome magnifier. The magnifier, about the size of my fist, would gather light and enlarge the text. I remember its weight well—so many times, I fell asleep on my back, a book in one hand and the magnifier resting against my face.

Later, on advice from a low vision specialist, I exchanged the heavy magnifier for 10x bifocal bubbles in my glasses. These allowed me to read more comfortably; I could hold the book in one hand and a pen for annotating in the other. The bifocals are my current favorite because they help me read without distorting the appearance of text. Other, more intense magnifiers will change the color and contrast of text, but they transform the cozy warmth of the yellowed page into a digital encounter. These technologies are incredibly helpful when I must accomplish a large volume of reading or when the print is too small for bifocal access. But they do change the character of the reading encounter for me.

However, I am realizing that the shape of reading is infinite. Beneath the heading, “How I Read,” is a collection of processes involving several senses. I read books in print, listen to audiobooks, read texts in braille, engage with materials through text-to-speech software, and, more often than not, combine these methods to access a text. Reading for me is a dynamic encounter with printed, embossed, or typed material. Reading involves more than visually tracking letters. It’s the willingness to engage and be transformed by literary work.

Elena is glad that I can read, and I am excited by the thought of transformation. I can encounter poetry, prose, neuroscience, nature writing, books on linguistics, books on music, books on love. At any given moment, I have a pile of books on my desk that I haven’t read and a long line of audiobooks I’ve downloaded but haven’t heard. I have more than 200 titles on an online wishlist, waiting to be read. I have several volumes of braille poetry, waiting to be experienced. One volume sits on a shelf in my office, ready for a warm, sunny morning and an hour of free time. A retractable purple pen rests on the desk beside me, poised for annotation. I know it won’t bleed through delicate pages or smear as I underline. So, you see, I am ready.

I will let Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite authors, end this passage, with words from her essay, “How Should One Read A Book?”:

“Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’” *

* from The Second Common Reader, Woolf’s volume of literary essays.

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