Sometimes I Forget How To Read

That’s an exaggeration. I don’t suddenly cease to be literate. I can always string letters into words and words into meaning. But there’s usually an ease in reading for pleasure. If I’m reading a novel, typically I’m barely even consciously thinking about reading. I’m immersed in the story. The processing of text into meaning is invisible. My eyes glide over the page, but I don’t register them doing so. I never seem to be focusing on a single word, but absorbing a line or more at a time. That’s what reading is for me: a vehicle for story. And usually, it’s not something I have to think about.

Sometimes, though, I get too in my head. This is a common ailment for me. If I focus on my breathing, I feel like I’m suffocating. I can’t seem to figure out how deep my breaths are naturally. Falling asleep is a nightly challenge. How does one just turn off their brain? How can people just stop thinking about things?? And the more I think about wanting to sleep, the further away it gets.

I’m used to overthinking these sort of things, though. I don’t always get along with… the physical world. But reading is supposed to be different. Reading is my thing! It’s how I relax, recharge, and process the world. So when I stop being able to read naturally, it gets to me a lot more.

There are some days where the natural movement of reading becomes foreign to me. My eyes suddenly can’t figure out how to move across the text to seamlessly process a paragraph. Every word, every sentence has to be individually parsed. What is usually a fluid, invisible process becomes all too noticeable.

When this happens, I can still read, but I can’t be immersed. Reading becomes a slow, awkward thing. The enjoyment disappears. Instead, the stop-and-go movement of it is a constant annoyance.

Luckily, it’s always a temporary thing. (At least, so far…) Like hiccups, it seems to only disappear when I’ve stopped thinking about it. Sometimes that takes hours. Sometimes, days. But eventually, when I’ve stepped away from books long enough that I’ve forgotten the irritation, reading becomes a natural activity again.

To be honest, I’m nervous to be writing about it. Will thinking about it this much cause it to happen again? What if I can’t shake it off as quickly?

It does give me more understanding for “reluctant readers,” though. When kids come into the bookstore annoyed to have to pick out a book, I can think about how different an experience reading is when it doesn’t come naturally. That’s a skill that has to be developed through practice, just like strengthening a muscle, and it can be frustrating to be at the beginning of that journey. I know I can eventually shake it off and read enjoyably again, but lots of people don’t even realize that smooth, natural reading is an option. And maybe it’s not natural to everyone. Maybe it’s just something I take for granted.

What I want to know is: am I the only person who goes through this? Do you ever suddenly find reading to be a much more clunky, unnatural experience than usual? Or is this just a weird me thing? (That’s okay. It wouldn’t be the first.)

Samantha Irby and Robin Sloan talk about their favorite books in our newest podcast, Recommended. Download it for free from Apple Podcasts or Google Play.