Reading and orienteering

I have always been fascinated by those old images showing a human head in profile, in which the scalp is marked out in dotted lines to map the areas in which the functions and qualities of the mind were supposed to be located: intelligence, empathy, spirituality and so on.  If my brain were to be mapped like this, there would be one vast area labelled ‘Booklover,’ and all the rest of my mental facilities would have to be squeezed into the odd corners remaining.  So now that I have a blog there is little doubt what I will be writing about.  And since I am 49% writer and 51% reader, I suspect it’s reading that is going to have the upper hand here.

This is the first blog and because one first puts you in mind of others, I find myself thinking about my first experience of reading.  The thing is though, I can’t remember learning to read.   I’m rather sad about this.  To have forgotten something so essential and transformatory is more than poignant.

I can fill the gap by imagining it of course.  A well-known story, told and retold by Mum and Dad; images that help me predict what’s coming next; a growing awareness of the black marks that appear on every page; the realisation that it is these black marks that are being spoken aloud; a sense of patterning within the marks… and so on.  My imagination is quite willing to provide momentous images: a mist clearing, the dazzling first experience of a vast new horizon, a sudden expansion of the world…

But was it like that?  Imagining is one thing and knowing quite another.  Still, if I couldn’t remember there was someone else who might.  I asked my mum, and she had a think about it. ‘I didn’t ever teach you to read,’ she said.  ‘You just seemed to know how to do it.’  So there it is.  I will never know what learning to read was like.

It seems unlikely that there was any breakthrough moment then.  It must have crept up on me, on tiptoe, inch by inch.  A slow dawning, too natural to be memorable.  Perhaps reading came to me the same way that knowing left from right and having a sense of direction come to most people.  Because I can remember – all too acutely! – the humiliation of learning that.  Failing to learn, I ought to say, because a map can still reduce me to tears in less time than I like to say.  I am the person who after three years in a city still takes her A to Z every time she leaves the house.  Who has to pick up an imaginary pen every time she needs to use ‘right’ and ‘left’ (because I ‘write’ with my ‘right’).  Who can remember only with conscious effort that left and right move around depending on which way you are facing, whereas north, south, east and west are fixed for all time.

Why though?  Why should a brain interpret inkmarks on a page with ease yet have such difficulty managing space and direction?  You’d think that the ability to know where you are would be a key survival skill, so why haven’t I got it?  Thinking again of those diagrams of the brain, I wonder whether reading in people like me comes at the expense of navigational ability?  Has reading squeezed out my inner compass and reduced my bump of direction to a concavity?  I need a Maryanne Wolf* to tell me.

When I get lost in my home city, it’s some consolation to think that it might be the price I pay for reading, a gift that gives me so much pleasure and improves my life in so many ways.  I might not know which way to turn to get home, but at least when I do my bookshelves are waiting for me, and in that world – bookworld – I navigate effortlessly.

Incidentally, I don’t really like the word ‘blog’.  I’ve nothing against the letters b, l and g until they come together, which is when things start to get ugly.  Glib blaggards and their blingy, eye-boggling gabble.  Do you see what I mean?

I tried to think of an alternative name, but it needs to be short and self-explanatory and I got stuck.  It was tempting to call it Shhh! recalling those strict, old-fashioned librarians I so admired as a child.  Because we all want a bit of peace and quiet to read and think about reading, don’t we?  But I thought it might not be clear what it meant if it appeared on a computer screen with no explanation.  So it’s a blog, which has the virtue of being understood by all.  But that’s no reason not to think of it as a place of Shhh!   An armchair.  A log fire.  A pot of tea.  And bookshelves all around.

  • Maryanne Wolf is the author of the rather wonderful Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain, an eye-opening book that offers insight into what the brain actually gets up to when it applies itself to deciphering the written word.  Awe-inspiring stuff.