You don’t have to read the whole article: “Reader’s Block” author says stop shaming over reading

There is no wrong way to read.

That’s the message behind Reading Block: A History of Reading Differences, a fantastic new book by Matthew Rubery, Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London. “Reader’s Block” is a tribute to everyone who knows they are intelligent – but also knows that they struggle with the supposedly simple task of reading. Throughout history, people who needed help learning to read were told they were stupid, lazy, or both, and then felt embarrassed. Even intellectually curious people who read without using their eyes (e.g. audio book consumers) are often told that what they are doing doesn’t count as “real” reading.

“I’ve spoken to many parents of children with dyslexia who are very clear that nobody wants to be seen as stupid. They would much rather be perceived as delinquents or troublemakers. Everything else.”

But what does “read” mean? As Rubery repeatedly points out, the act of “reading” is tantalizingly complex from a purely biological point of view, particularly in terms of the neurological processes involved. Even trying to come up with an informal definition proves a challenge. Is reading looking at symbols (i.e. words) and processing the information they contain? If that’s true, then what about blind people “reading” with Braille? If you are dyslexic and have developed personal shortcuts to extract the necessary information from a text even though the words seem to be moving and swimming in front of your eyes, does that count as “reading”?

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Rubery strongly argues that it is – and that the way society understands reading is fundamentally flawed. As Rubery himself writes towards the end of Reader’s Block: “Those of you who read this section of the book last should know better than to assume that other readers will inevitably work through it in turn as well. As far as I know, you might be reading my book backwards.”

And according to Rubery, that’s perfectly fine.

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“Almost any definition will work for some situations but not for others,” Rubery told Salon. “That’s why I’m not too attached to the definitions.” He later added, “I think reading is more about the brain than feeling the information coming through.”

In “Reader’s Block,” Rubery examines the cognitive experiences of people who read differently for a variety of reasons. Most of them are neurodivergent, which means their neurological systems don’t function in the way most people think is normal. Autism is often diagnosed in neurodivergent people (myself included). Rubery’s book focuses on dyslexia, hyperlexia, alexia, synesthesia, hallucinations, and dementia. Drawing on personal accounts, third-party observations, and the myriad ways in which reading distinctions have been preserved in our culture, Rubery notes that people who hunger for knowledge, entertainment, and the other benefits of “reading” often find ways to to get what they want, even if they can’t do it through the traditional “eyes scrolling the page until you’ve scanned the text” approach.

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“I think one of the things we can gain from looking at other styles of reading is that neurotypical readers suddenly think about aspects of reading that they didn’t pay attention to before,” Rubery said. “One thing I’ve learned from talking to people over the past few years is that even most neurotypical readers, once you press them, don’t necessarily consider their own reading ‘normal,’ and they suddenly will — once I do.” Start talking about an orthodox way of reading – for example, show that they have their own quirk.

Rubery also commented on the “shame” that people who read differently are trained to read. There is a “stigma” about not being a regular reader, Rubery stressed, and it can hurt people deeply.

“I expect to hear from a lot of people with new, unorthodox reading styles that I’ve never encountered before once the book comes out.”

“I think there has been a change in the last ten years; Schools are much better at recognizing neurodiversity than they used to be,” Rubery commented. “But when you’re talking to someone who grew up with dyslexia a few decades ago, it’s all about that feeling of that tipping point. One day they’re friends with everyone on the playground and then almost overnight gone wrong for reading class, suddenly they’re a social misfit and seen as stupid.”

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He added: “I’ve spoken to many parents of children with dyslexia who really emphasize that no one wants to be seen as stupid. They would much rather be perceived as delinquents or troublemakers. Everything else.”

It’s not just children who are misjudged because they have trouble reading.

“Kids who have trouble learning to read in school because they’re dyslexic can be a kind of shame,” Rubery Salon said. “But then there are other ways. Let’s say an adult who has difficulty reading when put on the spot, say in church or somewhere else. It’s a whole different kind of shame, but it’s still kind of based on the context of the feeling judged by your peers.”

While many authors hope their books will be the last word on their chosen topic, Rubery takes the opposite approach. The subject of reading is under-researched, Rubery explained, and he hopes that people who discover his book will reach out to share their insights with the world.

“I expect to hear from a lot of people with new unorthodox reading styles that I’ve never met before, once the book comes out,” Rubery told Salon.