On unexpectedly learning to read again

Photo by Sara Schmitt

I never thought I would be at this point.

I certainly did not think so 15 years ago when I was grounded and my punishment was that I was not allowed to read. I could watch television, play video games, nap, eat whatever I wanted, you name it. I was not allowed to take a volume off the bookshelf for 24 hours. It was absolutely hell to me at the time.

So why am I sitting here, a second-year student at an academically rigorous university, trying to learn how to read again?

Obviously, I know how to read in the most literal sense. I can comprehend words on pages, extracting their meaning. My writing and my vocabulary are good. What I have lost is my stamina: the ability to sit in a room for hours on end, oblivious to everything around me but solid black lettering on cream-colored pages.

I have lost the emotional pull I developed with characters, the one that made my cry when (spoiler) Dumbledore died in “Half-Blood Prince” and tear through countless John Grisham novels.

It did not disappear overnight, and to this day, I cannot pinpoint a single factor that eroded it. Maybe it was having more things to do and less time to sit down with a book at the end of the day. Maybe it was reading more articles on my phone, my attention span shortening bit by bit by from a learned expectation of instant gratification.

All of this occurred to me this summer, when I was preparing to travel to India for a few weeks. The 24-hour journey each way, mostly detached from the internet and its accompanying distractions, meant I had to keep myself from going insane in creative ways. For the first time in years, books held the honorable position of being my first choice.

Reading the first page, I could feel the rust. I had read plenty of books for my high school and college literature classes, but this was a different experience. I certainly enjoyed Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” but in at least a small way, I saw these texts as obstacles to be eventually overcome. Reading solely for pleasure? I could not remember the last time I had actually done it.

Slowly, I have made my way back. I started with long-form journalism and slowly moved forward. I am midway through “Wuthering Heights” (which I basically skimmed when I was supposed to read it in high school) and five chapters into Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

Just like a man jogging for the first time in years who wonders why he is not the same athletic specimen as he used to be, I initially disappointed myself. But little by little, I am remembering what it was that made me love reading in the first place: visualizing the thoughts of a narrator, slightly differently each time.

I still have my vices. I have probably watched way too many episodes of “Atlanta” as well as “30 Rock,” and I will probably buy “Madden NFL 17” when enough used copies show up at my local GameStop. There go weeks when I do not pick up either of my books. But I was taught from a young age that the only way to face a problem is to first acknowledge its existence. I have begun.