When I was in junior high, we had to read Call of the Wild in English language arts class. The kicker was that we had to follow along with a cassette tape recording of the book. I remember getting in trouble for reading ahead. The funny part about it is that I actually don’t remember much about Call of the Wild, or if I was actually comprehending what I was reading. But that experience really set the tone for my dislike of English classes until I went to college.
I always felt stressed when we discussed books, or took pop quizzes on books, or took big comprehensive tests about books. And thinking about it, I remember an instance in fifth grade where I got a C on a test because for the free response/open ended question, I wrote with really big letters to try to fill in the space.
An irony that sits with me until this day is that I pulled out for gifted/talented classes all through school, starting in about first grade. I think it was probably my mathematics, reading fluency, and analytical skills that set me apart, though, not my ability to regurgitate, comprehend, and discuss what I was reading.
Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”Hun-Kame in Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I think now as an adult, I have learned through extensive reading (heh) that my difficulty with comprehension probably has to do with some undiagnosed ADHD and/or other manifestation of neurodivergence. Reading is something I really enjoy, that I didn’t pick up again until after college. Even then I was reading mostly non-fiction.
However, for about two years now I’ve been part of a book club where we read award-winning science fiction and fantasy novels. I joined for a few reasons: my friend was starting the club, a couple family members joined, I wanted to be involved in something fun during the pandemic, and last but not least, I wanted to get better at reading fiction.
There are many times after our monthly sessions that I question my own parts of our discussions. A couple people in our group are really good at talking about what they read, like really good. It’s almost like they see things on the page that I don’t or can’t see. It is frustrating at times to know that I’m smart but have a hard time remembering what I read. But I know that with practice I can overcome some of my difficulty.
In school, reading for me was all about crossing that finish line. It was about getting through to the other side so I could write a report for a grade. In college, reading was basically akin to breathing. Now that I read for enjoyment and my own learning, I have to change my perspective and approach.
What I’ve done recently is write down quotes that resonate with me. And I mean, actually write them down. In a notebook. With quotation marks. Most of my quotes have to do with the philosophical underpinnings of the book since that’s what I’m really drawn to. I can see themes from a birds’ eye view, and I never forget the way a book makes me feel.
So I write down the quotes, then I try to write or talk about the book a little bit here and there. It helps to drop in some details during conversations with friends, just as a “hey I read this book and it was cool because…” That action is actually a little terrifying to me every time I do it. What if I’m talking to someone who’s an expert on the subject or book? What if they disagree with my interpretation? But these worries never come to pass and if anything, my contribution enriches our conversation.
These actions build confidence (because yes even at 36 I still need a boost sometimes!) and it encourages me to keep reading.
Finally, after having taught English learners for a decade, I firmly believe that reading is for everybody, and there is no right or wrong way to approach or talk about a new book. No one should be made to believe that “their way” of reading is wrong. We need everyone’s opinions to make the word go round.