I am a slow reader – painfully, tediously slow. It’s been true since I was in grade two and it’s still true today. Whether I’m reading aloud or not, I can’t move through a book any faster than the speed of speech – not nearly quickly enough.
If you’re one of the people who’s surprised to learn this about me, thank you. Most people assume writers are also accomplished readers. I am not. I have read and understood a lot of very good books. But it’s taken me a long time.
Why am I talking about it now? I just read book blogger Laura Frey’s Can-Lit confessions – a list of hard truths about her experience with our country’s literary canon. She admitted to not liking, not reading, and being slow to hear about a few of the authors and books considered Canadian classics. I enjoyed her candor so much I made my own confession about getting through my entire adolescence without reading a single word written by Farley Mowat (as proof of my ignorance, I think I even misspelled his name in my comment).
And then I started considering the short-comings in my own career as a reader.
Early elementary school – the learn-to-read years — was a hard time for me. In grade one, the fluid left behind my eardrums by a streak of bad ear infections made me mostly deaf. For about a year, nobody noticed. That’s how it is with hearing loss. No one’s to blame. The loss meant I spent my time at school listening to the dull tides of my pulse moving through all that fluid – fwum, fwum, fwum. I didn’t realize there was anything more to hear and I thought school was just really boring. It seemed like we sat in our desks or on the carpet doing nothing at all.
In the second grade, I had surgery, the deafening fluid drained away, and I came back to the land of the hearing to find I’d been bumped from my place in the reading group meant for the best readers in our class. After all the loud reprimands I remembered little deaf-me getting for not paying attention and not following directions, I figured I deserved the demotion and slunk away with my mediocrity.
Indignant current-me isn’t so sure I deserved it. I have always understood and retained what I read. But I will concede this: if we were being ranked based on our reading speed alone, mediocre was a generous assessment of my skills. Grade two is when I remember Her coming. She’s this voice in my head – an adult woman’s voice, I don’t know whose – that spoke every word I saw with my eyes. I couldn’t read any faster than she could talk. I still can’t.
After grade two, we moved to a new school where my teacher was just as interested in our writing as our reading skills. She told me I was talented and I became her unofficial language arts protégé – the student invited to the front of the class to read creative writing out loud, at the glorious pace of speech. No one ever mentioned my reading speed again. It was my secret to keep.
And I did keep it. I never cheated but I did learn how to read enough of a book to be able to sound informed about it and no more. During my Arts degree, I learned how to wade through enough of the material on a course reading list to still get an A. It was risky and stressful but I simply could not complete all the “required” readings. There wasn’t time for someone moving at my pace to finish it.
Thanks to the years and years I spent pinned under nursing babies, forced to sit down and hold still and listen to Her, I have ended up fairly well-read. It was another unexpected irony of motherhood – the way the babies who were supposed to stifle and suppress me ended up being what made it possible for me to become what I wanted all along. Eventually, I did read everything on the lists from my university classes. I’ve read hundreds of pounds of thick, daunting prose, poetry, and non-fiction. And I’ve loved it.
Now that I’ve finished my reading lists — now that the Bachelor of Arts degree hanging in my kitchen doesn’t seem so much like a sham anymore — I can freely admit to anyone that I’m not what people might think I am. I am a working writer but I am not what my early elementary school teachers considered a gifted reader. I am not incorrigibly bookish. I’m still poking my way through the literary landscape, warning my friends I’ll just drag their book clubs down with my sluggish ways. But I’m working in this field anyway, in spite of my nature. I’m reading and writing anyway. Maybe it’s true for anyone who tries to write as a vocation. We’ve probably all got something deep-seated and shame-laden that we had to overcome before we could do this.
I know, it reads like a sports cliche. But that’s the thing about cliches — they’re tired because they’re usually true.