Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer
Our Reading Lives

Being a Reader is Part of my Identity, So How Can I Have a Reading-Related Learning Disability?

A.J. O'Connell

Staff Writer

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books, and so, is constantly writing at least one novel. She holds an MFA in creative fiction, but despite the best efforts of her teachers at Fairfield University's low-residency program, remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She is a journalist and has taught journalism to college students. She blogs about feminism, the writing life, and whatever else comes into her head at Blog: A.J. O'Connell Twitter: @ann_oconnell

I’ve always thought of myself as a reader. Someone who read well, and read fast. I started reading earlier than my classmates, and so that was My Skill.

I read a lot of storybooks. Later, I read a lot of novels, ripping through them like they were nothing. I spent my childhood hearing what a good reader I was, and what a fast reader I was.  And I was—anything to get to a good story. That was my identity: A Reader.

And that’s why, whenever reading got difficult for me, I’ve seen that difficulty as a personal failing. Laziness, or shallowness, or just being kind of dumb.

The Textbook Incident

The first time it happened, I was in my first semester of college. I was assigned reading, and I decided to try and get a jump on it at the start of the semester because yay! Books! But there was a problem: the reading I’d been given was scholarly. It was college reading, not a narrative. The story was there, but it was buried under facts, figures, citations and what felt like hot air.

Without a narrative, I couldn’t follow the text. What had started as a friendly-looking book turned into a wall of letters. I panicked, but a friend showed up to my room, like you do in college, and I was distracted, putting off the meltdown and identity crisis that would accompany it for 20 years.

In the meantime, I just assumed that I was more interested in socializing than schoolwork (and I did like to socialize). This was the story I told myself about my four years of ignored required reading.

In reality, I skimmed a lot of my books while relying on notes, class discussions, and lectures. I did try to read, but gave up, and decided I was smart, but just too shallow to remember academic reading.  I let myself forget the panic I felt when I was staring at a text that should have been interesting to me, and the words just weren’t going in.

It’s something I told myself until recently.

It’s Happening Again (but it never really stopped happening)

Ironically, I am now a writer of non-narrative nonfiction for a living. This is a struggle for me, but I have developed strategies to get me through it—interviews, videos and podcasts are my go-to sources—although it never occurred to me that those strategies were coping mechanisms.

At least, not until recently, when a client of mine required me to read pages and pages of documentation for a project. I panicked before I even downloaded the packet of information. Then I read it through, and despite the fact that I know the project, the pages were nothing but walls of letters. I could make them make sense a few sentences at a time, but I couldn’t remember the information.

I’ve had to do this in the past with other projects, and I was able to get the work done by reading very slowly. But I was constantly wondering why the other writers I work with don’t seem to have this problem. Maybe I’m not serious-minded enough, I told myself. After all, I am a reader. I’ve always been a reader. An avid reader. That’s what all my teachers said.

But this time, I couldn’t do it. There’s a lot of information and I’m frazzled:  I spent the summer working with a small child at home, it’s back-to-school madness, and I don’t sleep as much as I used to. I took several stabs at reading that packet, but I just didn’t have the level of concentration to make it work. The words turned into a wall of text.

I’d never admitted my problem with reading non-narrative information to anyone before, because it sounds like a pile of excuses, and who would even believe me? I’m an author and a journalist. I have a graduate degree in creative fiction. I’m a reader.

But I had to explain to the client what my trouble was before it impacted deadline. And as I wrote the email to him it, it finally occurred to me, 20 years late: this sounds like a learning disability and I never told my professors because it sounded like excuses.

As someone who used to teach college myself, that was a gut punch. If a student had come to me with this problem, I hope I would have pushed them towards our accessibility counselor immediately.

But that’s impossible. Right?

But how can it be a learning disability when I’ve always been such an avid reader?

Am I claiming something that’s not true when so many people truly struggle with learning disability? There are plenty of people who love a good story who struggle to read. Maybe I am just lazy and shallow.

I thought of all the books I read as a child. There were hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Then I thought about the reading I’ve done recently and realized…I haven’t. I do go on reading binges when I’m addicted to a story, but I don’t pick up novels like I used to because now I can get stories anywhere.

When I was a kid, stories were only available to me through books and the family television, and I only got an hour of PBS a night. Now stories are everywhere. I binge Steven Universe on Hulu at night before bed rather than read a book. I’m addicted to the stories of my friends on social media. I’m not reading books, because maybe I’m not a reader.

maybe I never was a reader

I’ve chased stories, not words or books. If it weren’t for me wanting to know what happened in a story, I would have never bothered with reading at all as a kid.

The narrative always pulled me through the reading itself. Without a narrative, the act of reading is hard. If life is overwhelming, the act of reading becomes almost impossible.

So, maybe I’m not a reader. I’ve been lying to myself and everyone else about that. And if I’m not a reader, what the hell am I doing writing for Book Riot?

There was a meltdown. There were tears. My husband looked concerned. But at some point in that freakout, the part of my brain that is constantly keeping track of our family’s calendar kicked in and reminded me that it’s Tuesday, which means I have to make room in tomorrow’s schedule to hit the comic shop.

And that stopped the meltdown in its tracks. Because I do read. I read comics every week. I listen to Audible when I walk the dog. I recently was emailed by a publicist about an interactive novel, and was psyched about it, but I didn’t jump on that release because I didn’t know if it would count.

And yes, I do read novels sometimes, but the story has to be really important to me, because I am overwhelmed by life right now and most books just sit in my TBR pile forever.

So I read. But maybe I’m not a reader. Or maybe I’m a reader with an undiagnosed learning disability who made it through college and grad school on the strength of her coping mechanisms.

I don’t know what this is, but at least I know I’m not lazy

All of this is still pretty raw, and I don’t know what the takeaway is, here. I think it might be that you can think you’re getting one thing out of reading, but you are really getting something else. And that’s okay.

Or that you’re not stupid, shallow or lazy if you can’t read one kind of book but whiz right through another.

Or that you can still learn new things about yourself and your processing abilities after 40 years of life.

As for me, I don’t know if I’m going to get diagnose —but I just downloaded text-to-voice and am ready to get to work on that project now.

And I’ll also be picking up my comics tomorrow.