Reading Lessons

You never stop learning how to read — probably because you also never stop forgetting how to read.

Irina Dumitrescu | How We Read: Tales, Fury, Nothing, Sound | punctum books | July 2019 | 12 minutes (3,118 words)


I have forgotten how to read. It isn’t the first time. I have forgotten before and I will forget again. In other words, I am still learning how to read.

“Read,” like “love” or “think,” has a thousand meanings pressed into one deceptively elementary verb. We use it in a way that tends towards simplicity. It is the connection of sounds and concepts to standardized squiggles, to trails of ink on squares of paper, scratches carved into sticks, glowing lines of curved neon, careful stitches poked through a tight canvas. It can seem a basic skill, at least to those who have left the learning of letters behind.

Watching my son learn it now, I begin to understand how daunting a task it is, even given a phonetic language with a small alphabet, even with all the plasticity of a child’s brain at his disposal. Learning to read is a years-long series of internalizing rules and their many exceptions, of tiny modulations and adjustments. At first I thought it would be a matter of recognizing 26 letters. Then I saw that he must navigate upper and lower cases, print and cursive, different typefaces and hands, the sounds rendered by certain combinations of letters, umlauts and double S’s, unmarked short and long vowels, and the vagaries of foreign words and their unpredictable pronunciations.

So much work requires attention. My son approaches the challenge of decoding the world with intense concentration, straining to squeeze out meaning from each word and image. He is spellbound by anything legible, whether a phrase in bold, clear type or a comic strip that communicates just enough plot to fascinate, and will stare at it for what feels like ages. He is laboring hard, I know, but I still envy his power of absorption. Sometimes it feels like my practice as a reader has made me faster, but not consistently better. When I think of my own journey of learning to read, I am in fact thinking of a long process of learning and forgetting how to be with texts slowly, intimately, deeply.

My Eden was adolescence. As a teenager, I felt out of place, born in the wrong time, in the wrong body, and most inconveniently, in the wrong family and class. And like so many other young people, I searched with hungry desperation for some justification of my longings and inclinations in books. There were certainly distractions in that pre-internet paradise, but I also experienced flashes of grace, spaces of half an hour here and there when I could connect so directly to the language of a poem that it felt as though an electric charge were surging back and forth between my heart and the page. I was not so much reading the text as being read by it, imprinted by it, explained and forgivingly understood by those elegant patterns of ink. No doubt hormones played a part, but back then, those moments of communion with poetry (for it was usually poetry) felt sacred, all the more precious because unbiddable.

When I went to university the experience of reading shifted from romance to gymnastics. Yet formal exercise brings its own thrills. In the treatise on virginity he wrote for the nuns of Barking, the seventh-century English poet Aldhelm describes a series of gymnastic exercises Olympian athletes might undertake. In panting prose he imagines sweaty, oil-smeared wrestlers writhing, javelin-throwers guiding their projectiles, runners glorying in their victorious laps, riders urging forward their bloodied steeds, and rowers pressing through the sea. Then comes the twist: these are all metaphors for internal activities of the mind, and especially for the discipline of reading Scripture.

From the perspective of an early-medieval intellectual, there wasn’t much point in learning to read if you were going to stop at the surface of the text, content with its literal meaning. True literacy was a probing, analytical skill. It required reflecting on the etymologies of words, being attentive to puns and other kinds of soundplay, noticing patterns and parallels, comparing different versions of the same narrative, even unscrambling letters and counting sections of a text. What Aldhelm noticed — and I suspect he would have thought of all reading this way, not just of the Bible — was that reading was a bundle of related abilities, each of which needed precise training.

Studying for my English degree at the University of Toronto felt like being one of Aldhelm’s athletes, rehearsing the various games at their stations. We tend to think of undergoing a course of study in terms of gathering material: learn the canon, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, memorize the periods and the movements and the big ideas. But so many of the literary works I encountered at Toronto demanded individual treatment, asked me to experiment with placements of body and habits of mind in order to approach them.

When I went to university the experience of reading shifted from romance to gymnastics.

Take Milton (some might add: please). In my first-year introduction to the genres of English literature, Milton made me stumble. Our instructor had assigned several books of Paradise Lost in the fall semester, and I simply could not get into his verse. I had been an avid reader throughout high school, but had never encountered syntax as convoluted and formal as his. I could not concentrate enough to read beyond a few lines at a time. My freshman year was full of boisterous, boozy entertainments, and despite his stentorian voice, Milton could hardly be heard over the noise.

When I went home for Christmas, however, I decided to give Milton another go, and took my little Everyman edition with me to the bath. There was something about being immersed in nearly scalding water that took away just enough of my resistance to him. Suddenly, almost like magic, I could flow into the pentameters of Paradise Lost, follow sentences without hesitation as they spilled from one line into another, be swept away by the sheer cascading sound of it. After that, Milton was unlocked. I did not need to be in a bath to read him, I simply had to surrender in the same way, to submerse myself in the rhythm of his language. He became one of my favorite authors, as much for the overwhelming feeling of reading him as for the intellectual world he built in his epic.

University, I realized, was as much about learning to read as it was about actually reading things. I felt a thrill every time an instructor taught me the tricks of a text; these seemed like the real secrets I had come for. When I told my utterly dignified professor of Romantic literature that I was having trouble getting through Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, she smiled enigmatically and said she had always found a dram of scotch helpful for absorbing that particular work.

Still, most of the lessons took place in my spare time, as a result of my own passions and frustrations and experiments. I remember having a particularly hard time with Wordsworth’s Prelude one semester. We had been reading other Romantic poets in the course; next to Byron and Shelley and Keats, Wordsworth was dry as dust. Now, Milton had been difficult, but Paradise Lost, with its celestial battlefields and charismatic Satan, was at least dramatic. When it came to Wordsworth, I simply could not understand why he had bothered to write in the first place if he couldn’t think of anything exciting to put in the poetry. And given how boring The Prelude was, why would he subject me to three versions of it?

Determined to do my duty, I took my Penguin Classic along on my winter vacation to Florida, hoping to force myself through somehow. On one particular day, the relatives I was visiting drove me to a beach so I could at least have a look at the ocean even if it was too cold to swim. I began to pace slowly on the flat sand, and as I did, it occurred to me to pull The Prelude out of my purse and open the book. The slow tempo of my walking started to align itself with the languid pace of Wordsworth’s meter. Once my feet and his were synchronized, I was able to follow his meaning too.

This eureka moment did not help me love Wordsworth, but it gave me the key to reading him — from then on, I would pace as I read him. A little while later I read William Hazlitt’s essay, “On My First Acquaintance with Poets”, and was stunned to find his description of Wordsworth’s method of composition. “Coleridge has told me,” writes Hazlitt, “that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.” To read Wordsworth’s verse, I had had to imitate the movements of his body as he composed it.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

The hardest reading challenge for me was drama. It wasn’t difficult to get through per se, or even to understand the plot or figurative language. I spent the first summer of university working as a secretary and speed-read the collected plays of Shakespeare in a window on my computer when there were no other tasks to do. But I almost never picture what I read, so even when reading plays carefully I forget which line belongs to which character, what they might be doing as they speak it, or who else might still be standing silently on the stage.

My crash course in reading dramatic texts made me, ironically, a terrible student for an entire semester. A good friend and I were tasked with directing our college’s fall play. We chose Love’s Labour’s Lost, and dove into preparing an elaborate outdoor production at the expense of our schoolwork. I rapidly grasped the difference between reading a play and putting one on stage. When actors did not understand what a particular line meant, they asked us, and the entire rehearsal stopped while they stared at us expectantly and we racked our brains. When writing an essay on a literary work, I could choose to discuss the passages I understood best and ignore the ones that were still opaque. But performing Shakespeare meant acting the hard parts too: every line needed an interpretation, because every line had to be delivered with meaning. At the same time, watching our student actors rehearse I began to understand how Shakespeare’s lines worked as stage directions too. The more gifted actors instinctively carried out the gestures and movements written into the play’s text, just as Early Modern actors were trained to do.

My reading lessons could be purely cognitive, curiously embodied, or startlingly emotional. During my bachelor’s degree, I began learning Old English, then Latin. These were perhaps the most literal reading lessons I received in undergrad. When I took Toronto’s year-long course in Old English, I had not started a new language in any kind of serious way for over a decade. Old English meant learning a lot of abstract grammar from a frankly difficult textbook — in short, it was hard going at times. Still, I fell in love with it for its difficulty, and I remember the precise moment when that happened.

I was studying for our final exam in the course, and had taken my books to our college library to retranslate all the poetry we had read and make sure I had it right. Being, to put it mildly, extremely pretentious, I was writing out the translations with my fountain pen, which I pompously insisted on dipping into my inkpot instead of using cartridges like a peasant. One mournful poem, The Wanderer, was slow going. As I struggled to work out the syntax, each individual word had time to occupy my attention, had space to bloom in my imagination. It wasn’t simply that, for once, I could picture what the elegy described. I could feel what the exile felt, the icy cold of the sea biting his fingers, the warm sense of homecoming as he placed his forehead on his lord’s knee in his dream, the devastation of waking up and seeing it all gone. I looked down at my notepad and saw that my tears had bled the ink, rendering my translation illegible.

Learning a new language, a moderately difficult one, had given me the power of concentration I could not muster on my own. It had made me a child in a sense. More than that, by forcing me to struggle to access even the basic meaning of the line, it gave me that pure, profound connection to poetry that I have spent much of my life longing for. Once I became better at reading Old English it lost some of its emotional kick — it took less from me and gave me less in return.

Sometimes I wonder if the young read novels and poems because they are the only ones who can.

Most of my reading lessons ended with my undergraduate education. Since then, the circumstances of my life have increasingly pushed me to read faster, at the cost of comprehension and depth. In the process of becoming a researcher and a teacher of literature, I learned to plow through piles of scholarly articles each week, to scan a German or Italian book for the sections that might be useful to my thesis, to skim a literary text I had already taught a few times just to jog my memory. But while I was being trained to dissect imaginative literature with scientific precision, I lost the knack for reading it.

For years, I have found it difficult to get into a novel. Entering a new imaginative world feels like too much effort, so when I read for pleasure, I choose nonfiction. As a teenager I encountered the old stereotype that made-up stories are for the young and frivolous (and often female), while nonfiction is for the old and serious (and probably male). Now that I pay taxes and pluck out my grey hairs, I am convinced that fiction is the more demanding genre. Poetry, the great romance of my pubescent years, feels even more distant, requiring focus and receptivity I can rarely muster. Sometimes I wonder if the young read novels and poems because they are the only ones who can.

My body used to help me find my way into difficult texts; it was a matter of synchronizing it, aligning it, relaxing it to accept the words. Curiously, it is still my body that allows me to find my way back to literature now and then, though now it does so by breaking down. Here I am in a daze of postpartum trauma, hunching over my nursing newborn for hours. I cannot recognize my own home or tell the time of day, but somehow I can be entranced by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a verse epic to women’s creative power and the best mommy advice book I could have. Or here, I am confined to bed by bronchitis. Released from all the stultifying duties of adult life, I plunge into a pile of novels, feeling guiltily fortunate to be allowed hours on end to read. Or now, in the midst of a weekend dance workshop in a strange city, I find myself lying on the creaky bed of my small hotel room, my muscles screaming and slathered in ointment, aching too much to sleep or even watch television. I open Samina Ali’s Madras on Rainy Days, and its soft lyricism hypnotizes me deep into the night. It is as though I now have to lose a bit of my own corporeal solidity to enter a novel or a poem.

A clue for why this might be lies in an outlandish Old English poem I have spent years trying to understand, Solomon and Saturn. It is a dialogue between two legendary men: Solomon, the wise king of Israel, and Saturn, a wealthy student who has traveled through India, Greece, and Libya. Saturn offers his twelve sons and a wealth of gold if he can learn the Lord’s Prayer — a strange text to make such a big deal of, given what common knowledge it would have been for Christians at the time the poem was written. The Lord’s Prayer, or Pater Noster, was among the very first things someone might learn to read if they had the opportunity at all, right after getting to know the alphabet. To be accurate, Saturn does not ask to be taught the prayer itself. Instead, he asks to be “gebrydded” by the prayer, and scholars are not quite certain what “gebrydded” means. They think it might mean “frightened,” or perhaps “terrified,” or less weirdly, “shaken” or “overawed.”

Solomon seems happy enough to help Saturn out. He tells Saturn all about the magical powers of the Lord’s Prayer, how it heals the sick and teaches scripture and opens the doors of heaven. And then he does something even more bizarre: he describes how, when a person sings the prayer, each one of its letters transforms into a little warrior. In this bookish Anglo-Saxon scene of mortal combat, the fighting letters torture demons in brutally memorable ways: T stabs a devil in the throat and shatters his jaws, R shakes a demon by the hair until its limbs are out of joint, while S slams one of his enemies against a stone so hard that his teeth fly out.

It struck me at some point that this is a poem about learning to read. Yes, it is about understanding the individual letters on a page, but it is also about developing a powerful connection to a lyric, a story, a prayer, or a song. Solomon and Saturn imagines that a text can grab the reader so profoundly and emotionally that the act of encountering it might feel like terror. I do not think that the bookish Anglo-Saxon who wrote this curious poem really wanted reading to feel scary or violent. But I think he — or she — found a poetic way to express how shattering deep reading can be, and how our very bodies sometimes have to be a little bit destroyed for us to access it. The poet also knew there was something implausible and magical about reading intensely, that the feeling might only be granted for brief moments, like a spell.

Yes, I have forgotten how to read. I have practice at forgetting, but practice in learning too. And occasionally I am reminded that I belong to a quiet, timeless community of other longing readers, all of them yearning for a connection perfect and ephemeral. With them, I am still learning how to read.


Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature. She is currently writing about the craft of imperfection.


This excerpt was adapted from How We Read: Tales, Fury, Nothing, Sound, edited by Kaitlin Heller and Suzanne Conklin Akbari. It appears with permission of the publisher, punctum books. Copyright © 2019 by Irina Dumitrescu.


Editor: Ben Huberman