I earned my phd in American Literature in 2004, and I quit adjuncting in 2006. Shockingly, it’s 2013 and I can count on one hand the number of novels I have read since I last departed campus in any official capacity.
You might assume that I threw my hands up in disgust as I turned my back on the whole debacle, vowing to never touch a work of literary fiction again.
I didn’t. In fact, I had no idea it would be so long before I would regain my interest in literature. I had no idea I had even lost it.
In retrospect, I’d say grief shouldered literature out of my mind’s eye. Grief over the confluence of three things: the failed job search, death, and learning disabilities.
As I said, I didn’t consciously reject literature because I failed to make it my career, but there must be some correlation, right? There must have been some kind of defense mechanism, or perhaps just weariness of words, that turned my attention elsewhere.
Regardless, just months after I quit teaching, my daughter Olivia’s six year old friend was killed in a car accident, leaving me in a state of shock and grief that I’d never before known. I opened my eyes the morning after her devastating funeral and stared blankly from my bed, unfocused and unmoving. Fuzzied in my line of vision on the bedside table sat Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. My book mark stuck out of it, somewhere in the first 50 pages.
It would never move.
This had happened to me before. Were you teaching on 9/11? As the first plane hit, I parallel parked my car in an illegal spot just off campus (what graduate student can afford legitimate parking?). I assumed it was a small plane and taught my 9:30am class without incident. An hour and a half later, I stood in front of my second class listening to the local news on a portable pink CD player. I’d brought it to play the slave spirituals we were supposed to discuss that day.
I had been so excited about that lesson. Taking something that looks so simple on the surface and peeling back its layers of delicious complexity thrills any teacher, doesn’t it? I’d introduce words and phrases like “double-voiced,” “dialogic,” and “intertextuality.” We’d let them roll around on our tongues like so many sweet jellybeans clickety clacking together.
Instead, we listened to frantic journalists use cold metallic words and phrases like “bomb,” “war,” “terror,” and “death toll.”
When my classes reconvened on Tuesday, we talked about how the world had changed. We wrote about our feelings. We shared our stories.
By the next Thursday, I knew we needed to make Frederick Douglass matter again, but I remember looking at the book with a feeling of complete and utter disinterest. Despite the fact that Douglass addresses similar emotions, our current grief, shock and terror made his work feel distant and irrelevant.
After 9/11, I regained my literary footing rather quickly—perhaps because I had 60+ students relying on me to help them move on, and I had a dissertation that refused to write itself, no matter how much I pleaded with it.
After Olivia’s young friend died, however, no such imperatives existed. For over a year, it never even occurred to me to read anything literary. Unfortunately, I would experience further tragic losses as time passed, keeping grief and reflections about mortality at the forefront of my mind. In that context, novels felt frivolous and inconsequential. Literature felt indirect and inaccessible. Instead, I busied myself with informational texts, reading about current events, death and grief, and a new preoccupation: special education.
My son, Gareth, was diagnosed with dyslexia in the year I graduated. Consequently, the end of graduate school marked the beginning of my informal research on learning disabilities and the brain. I read about multiple intelligences, different kinds of memory, visual motor integration, auditory processing, ADHD, sensory integration dysfunction (now sensory processing disorder), and multi-sensory approaches to education. I’d learned enough by 2007 that I had a small business off the ground, tutoring dyslexic learners for 8-10 hours a week.
Inadvertently, however, I learned something about myself in all that research (isn’t that always how it is?). No, I do not have dyslexia as you’d expect me to say (it’s genetic), but I do have a learning disability. A shocking one, quite frankly, for a person who has earned a Ph.D. in literature.
I cannot remember the books I read. I comprehend well, and come away with the larger message of a text (which works fine for informational readings on specific subjects). With something like a novel, however, I come to the end with big picture messages, overarching plot points and impressions, but very little detail.
Why? I learned from my research that most people visualize what they read—making movies in their heads that create memories. I don’t see anything but words. This means that unless I take copious notes and study them, I will not remember many details about a given book. In the past, I had blamed myself for forgetting, always promising myself that “next time” I would pay better attention, and it would be different. Now I understood that it wasn’t an attention or an effort problem. My brain just doesn’t work that way.
While discovering a learning disability can be empowering, my initial reaction was grief. Grief for my lost hope in the successes of “next time.”
With proper training and a lot of practice, I know I could develop my visualization skills. However, having no time or money for that back in 2007 (or now), I found myself suddenly faced with a formidable question: why bother to read a novel if I’m only going to forget it?
I didn’t know the answer to that. So I stopped reading.
And the years went by.
Since then, I suppose time has worked its magic, smoothing the sharp edges of loss in career, life, and learning, because suddenly, I find myself searching, when the kids have gone to bed, for that book. Not Isaac’s Einstein: His Life and Universe that I plowed through last year. Not Rothkopf’s Power Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government that I’ve yet to finish.
But a story.
I was thinking about this new (but very familiar) need and what it might mean as I read this month’s Harpers. Scanning the book reviews, I came across Tom Bissell’s review of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers. In it, he notes the “power of fiction” and how it can give you “the sudden sense…that you’ve been cleaved from some calamitously lost other half. Seeing the world through another’s eyes, you are restored to what feels like full sight, and full thought, once again.”
Yes. That is what I’m looking for.