Columns > Published on May 31st, 2017

Temporary Illiteracy: Life Without Books

If you are currently viewing this article, chances are you enjoy reading. You probably do it every day, for both work and pleasure. You might have documents and emails to peruse while at your job, and perhaps you spend your free time reading blog posts and articles on the internet, maybe even thumbing through the yellowed pages of a well-loved novel before bed. Reading is a vitally important skill, yet easily taken for granted until a very special episode of your favorite sitcom reminds you not everyone can do it. Like riding a bike, it is very difficult to forget how to do it once you’ve learned. Difficult, but not impossible.

At my day job, I work on a loading dock. One day I was stacking boxes in a truck when a metal panel came unsecured and fell on my head, giving me a pretty serious concussion. In addition to light duty and painkillers, the doctor prescribed cognitive rest. I needed to take it easy on my brain just like I would for a sprained ankle. Reading, writing, playing video games, even just listening to music could prove too stimulating for my traumatized grey matter, which in turn could be quite painful. I was also warned not to just grit my teeth and bear through it, as this would only lengthen my recovery.

For the better part of three months I was functionally illiterate, a condition that ironically gave me the following insights about our relationship with reading. I learned...

The Day Is Long

My life without books was not the simple inconvenience I had imagined, but a waking nightmare where time seemed to stand still.

Of course, the first thing I did when I got home was turn on the TV. Even though it was a show I watched regularly, I found myself struggling to remember not just previous events, but also the characters and their relationships to each other. Although I could hear and understand the dialogue, the lines became incoherent because my head could no longer hold any context. The jokes fell flat and the drama was deflated, and every time it cut to another scene I became totally lost. I didn’t even make it halfway through an episode before I had to admit my doctor was right and turn it off. After playing with the cat for an hour, I realized I had no idea what to do with myself for the rest of the day. We typically spend our time recovering from illness and injury binging on shows and movies, playing video games, and devouring thick novels we normally never have the time for. All of those options were unavailable to me.

I discovered that while I could still decipher road signs as well as read and compose a simple text message, anything longer than a tweet gave me a skull-splitting headache. Not only was the half-read novel on my shelf now nothing more than a brick of paper, but even the simplest of blog posts transformed into impenetrable walls of text. An issue of The Avengers was just as dense and daunting as a copy of War & Peace on a high schooler’s desk. I still understood the words, but figuring out what they all meant together in that big jumble was beyond me. It actually hurt to even try. Writing was equally impossible—I couldn’t keep the larger context of the piece in mind, and I would often forget what I was trying to say before I reached the end of a sentence. Before my injury there had never seemed to be enough hours in the day, but suddenly there were far too many. That was how I learned…

Normal Life Is Boring

Ironically, I now had an abundance of free time and almost no way to spend it. I didn’t foresee this being a problem, because I always felt like I never had enough time for reading, so surely the hours freed by its suspension would not be too numerous. But I discovered that reading accounts for so much more than just time spent on a couch with a book. Think about all the blogs, tweets, and articles you read when you should really be doing work. Don’t forget the funny listicles and social media posts you scroll through on your phone every time you have to wait for something. And if you take public transit, chances are a book of some kind keeps you company on the ride. It wasn’t just my free time that had become a fathomless void, but also every interstitial moment of my life. Boredom became an inescapable part of my daily routine, and I could do nothing but weather it. I even came to dread the weekend, with all its idle hours waiting to be filled. With so much time left to ponder, I was eventually forced to admit…

I Am Boring

Reading does so much more than just kill time and entertain. It enriches our understanding of the world and provides escape from the drudgery of normal life. Even the driest journalism can add flavor to your daily story—because of reading, we have more to discuss with the people we know than work and the weather. You contain more than the sum total of your experiences because you can absorb others through the alchemy of ink and paper. When you can’t read, everyone seems to know so much more than you and you begin to feel like a child trying to follow the conversation at an adults’ dinner party. Maybe you can understand bits and pieces, but you can’t really contribute.

After a week without reading anything, I no longer had anything to say. You’d be surprised how much of your daily conversation is dedicated to discussing the interesting things you have seen and read, sharing the stories you encounter with friends and family. Obviously I could not weigh in on popular culture, but over time I found I had even less to offer. My stories were only about work and my cat, unless something funny happened on the way to the grocery store (spoiler: it did not). Even on these subjects I was still unable to craft a compelling narrative—I was simply relating information. I couldn’t even reminisce about youthful indiscretions with old friends, because while I could remember the events, finding something interesting to say while still listening to the other person was exhausting, and so most of my social interactions were no more than three sentences long. Beginning, middle and end was all I could handle.

As with many of the good things in life, reading is easy to take for granted until you suddenly can’t do it. Sure, I know “reading is essential” from countless school posters, but I didn’t fully grasp how important it was to me until it was gone. My life without books was not the simple inconvenience I had imagined, but a waking nightmare where time seemed to stand still. While it was an eye-opening experience, I am grateful my bout with illiteracy was only temporary. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an absolutely massive stack of comics that aren’t going to read themselves.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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