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.