11/29/15: As Easy as ABC?

I recently read Oliver Sacks’ book The Mind’s Eye. I’ve always been interested in mental disorders from a biological standpoint, and this book mystified me. Specifically, there was a chapter about alexia, or an inability to read. While it’s possible to have alexia from birth (in the form of severe dyslexia), it mostly affects perfectly literate people in the wake of traumatic brain injuries and strokes.

Never before had I considered the possibility of losing my ability to read. Though I remember moments from age 3 or so, I cannot remember the sensation of looking at an English word and seeing foreign, unintelligible symbols. For alexic individuals, staring at words in their native language feels just the same as staring at Chinese or Arabic does for an English speaker like me. The prospect of having my entire lexical knowledge erased in a single incident is both fascinating and absolutely terrifying.

The idea of alexia stuck in my mind for weeks after reading Sacks’ book, and it dawned on me that such a disorder would make a very interesting premise for a novel. I’m currently in the brainstorming phase, but I envision something like this: a college student suffers some sort of brain injury/stroke and finds herself completely incapable of reading (and possibly writing, known as agraphia). She is forced to drop out of college and start an entirely unanticipated life in which she is perfectly mentally sound but completely illiterate.

To gauge her own emotional reaction to such a form of trauma, I thought about how I personally would react to the knowledge that I could never again comprehend written words. How would I feel if I could never again read a book, use my computer to any useful end, understand a digital clock, follow a recipe, understand a price tag?

My first reaction was to think that life would be extremely difficult. I would have to work a job that did not require reading (which I don’t believe exists). I would have to raise my kids without ever reading them a story or teaching them the alphabet; in fact, they would have to help me with everyday reading tasks. I could never be independent because I couldn’t understand my tax forms or bills or any sort of legal documents, let alone drive myself to an unfamiliar destination. I would have to ask waiters and doctors and friends to read my receipt/forms/letters for me. The world would no longer be accessible to me in so many ways, most of which I haven’t even considered.

I thought more about a career path I could hold as an illiterate person and realized just how painful it would be to give up on all my academic dreams.  It would not just be painful; I would feel stripped of so much of my identity. I have grown up believing that I am in many ways a product of my brain and intelligence. I have always depended on my intelligence to give me a sense of confidence and self-assuredness. When considering alexia, I had to ask myself the question: who would I be if I wasn’t classically intelligent anymore? Who would I be if I could no longer participate in the normal world of knowledge and information?

Intelligence is not all I take pride in, of course.  I am proud of my ability to love and care for other human beings, animals, and the planet. I love nurturing people and helping them overcome their own insecurities and inner conflicts. I identify with my physical body and all of the wonderful athletic and aesthetic things it is and can do. And, beneath all of that, I am working every day to become more in touch with the Being inside that shines below all of the thought-driven and physical traits that I am.

But it’s easy to say that my intelligence and literacy is second to those more personal and selfless aspects of my identity. If I really did lose my ability to read, I know that I would be overwhelmed and shocked at how important my intelligence and learned capabilities are to my identity. I’ve never ever considered “literate” as one of my traits, but perhaps it is one of the most important things that I am. I no longer want to take it for granted, and I most definitely want to explore these types of traits that we take so for granted as educated people. Perhaps I will do so in the form of a novel, or perhaps not, but I think it’s something we should all take time to think about: what parts of me are integral to my identity that I don’t even think about?

This is an especially pertinent question for those of us who appreciate Buddhist wisdom and strive to dissociate our Beings from our egos. This requires us to understand what things really are part of our core, of our Aliveness, and what things we have accumulated in our brains as a product of experience and thought. The true, deep “I” is not literate, is it? Can it write? Can it express itself in any way that we use today?

If I do pursue this novel, I would love to share bits of it here. If any of you have feedback on the idea please let me know! How would you react if you could no longer read? Do you think you would become depressed or gain incredible wisdom? There is no wrong or weak answer to that question. We all view literacy and intelligence in very different ways, and I think it’s a question that may shed newfound insight into your own psyche.

16 thoughts on “11/29/15: As Easy as ABC?

  1. Very cool thought/premise. However, although a shock to the system, and your life, I would think that current technology would be a terrific aid in this condition. First, after the stages of grief, and acceptance (all a challenge in and of itself), I think computers would/could play a big part in overcoming the reading issue – Apps to read price tags that speak to you; speak and text applications, talking to your computer and trusting it will translate properly; programs to read to you web pages, books, etc…Again, no great feat to get over, but nonetheless, manageable. I am NOT saying I’d like to go through it as you could fry your brain thinking about it.

    It would make a good novel though! All the thoughts/feelings you could express on the transition from self-reliance to computer (or non-self) reliance would make good reading…

    Good luck! 🙂
    Michael J.

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    1. Modern technology is an incredible solution to so many of the problems faced by illiterate individuals, in the forms of all the apps you mentioned. For that reason, I was considering setting the story in the early 2000’s or slightly earlier so that the issue of being illiterate could not be solved by the apps we have today. However, maybe it would be an interesting route to examine someone whose entire life is dependent on technology to a greater extent than the rest of us, as you said. Thank you for the ideas!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Is Alexis the inability to recognize the written word or is there something there which would prohibit you from learning something like Braille?

    There are computer programs which read the written word and you can dictate to them so they can write the words down.

    It would be an interesting read following her steps to once again be self reliant in a world where visual stimuli, especially the written word, is very prevalent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Braille was actually one of the things I thought of as a mode of communication that I have not researched yet in terms of alexia. It seems that different alexic individuals have different degrees of language processing ability- for example, some can still write but not read their writing, and others cannot even understand visual language like sign language and gestures. Depending on what avenue I would like to take the story, I could definitely have her able to learn Braille. Thank you! As far as technology goes, you’re absolutely right. I was considering setting the story before modern computers had the capability of reading webpages to you, but I haven’t worked out all the detail yet. Thanks so much for your help!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome.
        If she’s not very wealthy you might need to have her switch over to another computer system from Windows. I know Ubuntu has a FREE add on (or some such) for the visually impaired but you have to pay for the extra on Windows. Not sure about Apple products.

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  3. Avery, this is an absolutely thought provoking post. I just loved the way you have elaborated your emotions. Well, if I ever have to face such a phase in life, I think initially I would be caught in a confused state of mind. But since I am a thorough believer of Buddha’s teachings, I would accept the situation with no feeling of regret or sorrow. I would try to learn a new way of living life, probably by involving myself into activities not relating to reading, like yoga, dance, and aerobics… and may be mastering one of those to be able to teach it out to the world. Though literacy is an extremely significant element of one’s identity and the means to earn money but it does not always define your potential. As you have beautifully mentioned in your post, there is much more beyond our “’Being” that needs to be discovered!

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    1. Thank you so much! The concept of personal potential is one that I think about quite a lot in relation to myself, and something I would definitely like to explore with this plot. I would love for the character’s resolution to be the realization that she doesn’t have to live up to any sort of preconceived levels of achievement or accomplishment, but that she is enough just being present in her reality. I want to explore the idea of the ego and the human desire to accomplish, be recognized, and leave a legacy, but how these desires do not offer sustainable peace. While I’d like to accomplish in my life, I try to remind myself that my worth as a human being requires no achievements; I am already worthy of life as a living being. Thank you so much for your comment! I think your reaction to such a situation is a very Buddhist reaction and one I will definitely consider going forward.

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      1. You’re most welcome dear. I am truly humbled for your much appreciated remark. In true regards, you actually provided me a chance to perform self introspection that night, I pondered a few minutes and then came up with this reply. Yes, I do follow Buddha’s teachings and connect to positivity beaming out of anything or any person whosoever makes me believe in them.

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  4. Hi does this condition affect the ability to recognize number, understanding price tag for sample.
    Or could he/she handle things like buying his own grocery?
    If he cannot do that, it would be difficult to live by himself.

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    1. For most people with alexia, I do believe it affects a person’s ability to read numbers. So yes, an person with alexia would have a very hard (essentially impossible) time living alone, unless they constantly asked others to read price tags and things for them (assuming those people were honest). Thanks for your ideas!

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  5. Hello Avery!

    First of all, I would like to apologise for such a prolonged absence. As the time of my final exams drew closer and closer, unfortunately, I had to severely cut down on the time I spent online… I hope you don’t take offence at my absence and I also hope that you know just how excited I am to be able to read your wonderful musings once again!! 😉

    I love this idea for a novel!! My mum teaches English to migrants and refugees, many of whom are illiterate in their first language. Moreover, they often lack skills such as basic arithmetic or fine motor skills, which most of us in the Western world take for granted. My mum and I talk quite a bit about her work and we both still wonder how these people are able to get on with their every day lives. After all, they are not only illiterate, but their knowledge of English is also severely limited.

    I have never considered losing the ability to read myself though. It’s quite a scary thought! I mean, if we can lose so many of the traits that we use to define ourselves, what is it that defines us??

    As with everything, I think that this can be viewed positively. For me, knowing that there is a possibility of permanently losing my ability to read is a yet another reason to be grateful for the life right now.

    I hope you have been well, and I would love to know what you have been up to over these past few months! 🙂

    Berta

    P.S. If you are interested, by any chance, I’ve returned to blogging too. However, I have set up a new blog called explorecookdiscover.com. I would love to see you there, but I also understand completely if it’s not to your liking!

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    1. Hi Berta!! It’s so nice to hear from you again! I will go through and answer your other comments briefly, but I’ll put the bulk of my message to you here. And don’t apologize for a second about your absence- of course, I missed you, but school always comes first! I’ve been known to drop off the grid myself and it’s my own blog!
      Thank you! Your mother sounds like an incredible woman- I’d be so interested to hear what the lives of the refugees she works with are like. The more I ponder it, the more illiteracy seems to detract from one’s quality of life. Though it’s easier to cope in the age of technology that can speak, things like shopping, eating out, and doing any sort of job seem impossible. For refugees who are often not fluent in the native language, this problem is exacerbated further. Kudos to your mother for the amazing work she does!!
      That question of what defines us is exactly what I want to consider when I write. If I can’t read (and by extension can’t work or go to university and be a “productive” member of society), who am I? I think so many of us, especially when we are young, define ourselves based on our potential for the future, and losing the ability to read would essentially wipe this potential slate clean. As you said, I have become much more grateful for my brain’s health in reading about and processing different kinds of trauma-related disabilities. We run the risk every day of hurting our heads and manage to get through them unscathed, which seems pretty miraculous.
      These last few months, I’ve been very busy at school, and that’s been taking up a lot of my time. I’ve been involved in sports, too, and haven’t had as much time to write. I’m on winter break now so I’m trying to catch up on my blog and get my book started while I have the free time! And how have you been??
      I just subscribed to your blog the other day when I first saw this comment. I’m so happy to see that you’re back! As you know, I think your blog and photos are absolutely beautiful and, if nothing else, I will spend lots and lots of time scrolling through and admiring your photography and the art that you bring to baking!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment! I hope that on my blog, I can give as thoughtful replies as you!!
        The more I read of your ideas, the more I want to read a book of yours, really! The “who am I?” question is an eternal one, and it’s so interesting to explore it from different perspectives.
        That sounds familiar. Expect for the sports bit 😉 what sports do you play?
        At the moment, I’m waiting to find out what university I’ll be attending next year. In the meantime, I’ve been dividing my time between writing (both blog and journaling), working part-time as a tutoring assistant and simply spending time with my family. This year was extremely hectic for me, so it’s nice to slow down a little bit 🙂
        Thank you very much for subscribing to my blog! It means to me more than you can imagine!!
        Merry Christmas and Happy New Year ❤ 🙂

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      2. Of course! I love to have conversations through this blog as much as I like to write articles- perhaps more.
        Well, I’m incredibly flattered to know you’d like to read a book of mine! I hope I can answer at least a piece of that question in the book I’m working on now (about alexia). Perhaps, if you’d be interested, you could read some of it someday! (Only if you’d want to, of course!)
        I play soccer and tennis, but I’m certainly not prodigal at either. My school is very small and everyone makes the team, so mostly it’s just for fun. I have participated in club soccer for a few years (competitive soccer for young people in the US- I don’t know what the Australian equivalent is).
        Are you applying to schools in Australia, or also other countries? I will definitely continue to read your blog and comment. I’ve also been able to slow down a bit now with winter break and it’s so nice to have some time to sit back and write and think and just enjoy the family.
        Of course! I absolutely love everything you write and bake and all your pictures. Merry Christmas!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I would be absolutely delighted to read a part of your book!! If you like, I can give you my email, and then you can email it to me whenever you are happy for me to have a read of it (unless you’re planning on posting it here of course) 🙂
    Playing a team sport simply for the fun of it sounds fantastic!! In Australia we have soccer too, and it’s quite popular, whether as a hobby or competitively or professionally. It’s not as popular among Australians, but it’s extremely popular among migrants and refugees (of which there are many); you can see people from lots of different cultures playing together, and I find that rather amazing. Watching something like that gives you hope that someday we can all get along 😉
    I’m applying to Australian universities, actually only within my state. However, I hope that during the course of studies I will be able to study aboard for a year or so, which seems realistic as far as I understand. Have you considered studying abroad?
    I’m really happy to have you as reader of my blog!
    Have a great New Year’s Eve!!

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