Can't read? Say Hello to something glossy

March 11, 2005

If words aren't sinking in, reach for less challenging matter, says Susan Bassnett

Writer's block is a pretty well-documented phenomenon, and most of us have suffered from it at some point. It can take the form of finding endless excuses not to sit down and write, or of actually sitting down and then either staring at a blank screen or playing hand after hand of computer solitaire. In its more extreme forms, it can induce panic attacks at the mere thought of writing and bring on days, if not weeks, of non-productivity while the sense of self-worthlessness increases by the hour.

It is a horrible, distressing condition, suffered by professional writers and academics alike. If anyone has it badly and finds it lasting more than a couple of weeks, it is best to seek professional help.

But academics are also prone to a variant block, which receives far less attention but is just as distressing. Let's call it reading block: an inability to take in what you are reading, at times an inability to read at all. Reading block is very troubling for academics, because so much of what we have to do every day involves reading, from marking students' work to reading manuscripts for publishers to administration paperwork.

Reading block, like writer's block, can come out of the blue or it can creep up on you slowly. Most of us will try to ignore the signs and keep reading regardless, even though we may forget what we have read within seconds of putting down the paper. Or we may find that we are having to read the same passage several times for it to make any sense or that no amount of readings helps. Sometimes the body reacts by causing us to fall asleep as soon as we start to read but, if you are like me, then you feel a sense of guilt on waking up, which only adds to the problem.

The first time I spoke about reading block to a group of academics there was instant recognition. Everyone in the room had experienced the problem and everyone had felt so inadequate ("downright stupid", as one put it) that they had never endeavoured to talk about the problem with anyone else.

Writer's block seems to be something one can admit to without too much shame, but the inability to read is not.

There are ways of tackling the problem, though, and the first step is to realise that it is very common in an age of communication overload. Apart from reading at work, we also read hundreds of other texts, from junk mail to train timetables and newspapers. Given the speed with which we have to process so much information, it is perhaps not surprising that every so often we feel overstretched. If you find you have a reading block, this may just be your body's way of telling you to slow down and take a rest.

I find that the best way to ease myself back into full reading mode is first to acknowledge the problem, then to start again slowly. If you are not taking anything in, it is useless to try to cope with a massive textbook or a pile of essays.

Start instead with something that you think you might enjoy, such as a magazine that is not going to pose any intellectual challenges, ideally one with a lot of illustrations.

Once you can read magazines, move on to longer texts. If there are children in the house, read a children's book or two. Rereading a favourite book is another good way of getting back into reading mode; if it is something you know you enjoyed once, then the expectation of enjoying it again will keep you reading.

Above all, remember that reading is a habit: it may be one of the tools we employ to earn a living, but it is also a routine activity and needs to be maintained.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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