Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stephen King rescued my reading

I've been a big reader for as long as I can remember. I was always reading in the back of my parents' car whenever I was being reluctantly ferried somewhere, my brother beside me feeling travel sick, while if it was night-time I would be waiting for the next street light to sweep by so I could read another eight or nine words before the darkness returned. (My parents used to tell me I'd damage my eyesight; I got my first pair of glasses when I was 10).

For my 8th birthday, which happened to fall when we were holidaying on the island of Menorca or Majorca, I forget which, my parents brought my presents with us so I could open them on the right day. The only one I remember was from my aunt: a hardback book containing the two Michael Crichton novels Jurassic Park and Congo, a doorstop of a thing with about 650 pages that must have been a bugger for my dad to lug around in his suitcase. I was in heaven.

But then when I was 15 something happened. Gradually, without my being aware of it being triggered by anything, I started fixating on pronouncing each word in my head as I read it, making sure each syllable was enunciated sufficiently thoroughly for me to be able to move on. Increasingly, this meant having to go back and re-read the same particular word or sequence of words again and again, sometimes a dozen times or more. It was like what I imagine having a stutter must be like, only I was stuttering not over a vocalisation but over a ... mental acceptance of a word as having been read satisfactorily, is the best way I can think to describe it.

Slowly it became crippling: whereas once I'd read almost the entire 650-odd page Alan Dean Foster novelisations of the first three Alien films in a single day, I spent the first 6 or so months of 2003 getting through less than half of a single book.

I knew it was a mental hangup, something I ought to be able to just not do, but the difference between knowing that and applying it was everything. Sometimes I'd get to the end of a sentence and then one word would be stuck in my head as something I hadn't read right, and back I would go. Again and again.

Months went by, and I wondered whether I would ever read normally again. I took some solace from the fact that I could glance at a road sign or similar short snatch of text and decode the meaning of the words before consciously feeling like I was actively "reading" them, thereby escaping the trap, and the problem was less severe with things like textbooks and less severe generally in the classroom environment, but by the time the summer of that year rolled around I'd gone from reading all the time to barely even daring to pick up a book, or picking one up and then dropping it again minutes later having been unable to get anywhere.

I didn't talk about it to anyone, but my friend even commented on it, noticing that I'd been reading the same book forever. I made excuses.

I was almost resigned to the situation of no longer being a reader when, fully expecting the same outcome as with all the other books I'd attempted to read that year, I picked up Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three, the second book in his Dark Tower series.

I remember starting to read in a state of, at the risk of being overly dramatic, near misery. But then something magical happened: the story locked horns with my fixation, and I realised with growing joy that the story was stronger.

It didn't happen all at once. I started out slowly, tripping up and getting stuck like I'd become used to. But little by little the traps became less sticky, to the point where soon I was starting to fixate but then moving on each time before it could take hold.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was all down to the pace and excitement of the plot. The Drawing of the Three is the point in the Dark Tower series where it all really takes off: badass hero Roland, gunslinger extraordinaire, is thrust into the grungy world of two-bit punk Eddie and the violent thugs he's got himself involved with, through a plot device I won't reveal but which, to my 15-year-old self, but probably to anyone at any age, was just so damn cool.

The sensation was like how I imagine it must feel for people with phantom limb pain who experience relief through VN Ramachandran's mirror box trick, whereby the agony of the sensation that a hand which is no longer a part of your body has been permanently clenched for weeks or months on end suddenly dissipates when, by viewing a reflection of the relaxation of one's remaining good hand, the brain is visually fooled into believing that the missing hand has unclenched.

For me it was more gradual, and the sensation was one of frustration and fixation rather than pain, but the metaphor of an unclenching feels right: it was like my brain, as each sentence and each paragraph and each page went by with less and less obstruction, was learning to release itself from its own grip.

I finished the book in a couple of days. Since then, I've experienced only the occasional blip, easily vanquished.

I don't know whether there's a name for what I experienced or how common it is. (Try Googling it, and see where that gets you.) I've never raised it with anyone, but once, only once, have I heard someone else talk about it or something very similar: a friend, without my prompting, told me she'd experienced something that sounded much like what I went through, although in her case there were contributing circumstances that weren't a factor for me.

Maybe it's something that would have gone away eventually regardless. Maybe it's something there are multiple causes of and multiple routes out of. All I know is, The Drawing of the Three is a book to which I will always remain uniquely attached.

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