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A fear of words

1st August 2011 - Steve Newman

There is a paradox at the heart of what I do. I work in an industry that takes reading for granted and we're expected to eat, sleep and live books. The latest Julian Barnes, we've the read the proof; Philip Roth, we know his works by heart.

But if only it was that simple. You see I have issues when it comes to reading because I'm dyslexic. It was a shock when I first realised, but it's now fact of life. But it's still an issue. I'm writing this blog after a few pints and several days of staring at a blank page just to write this half sentence. I struggle to read. It's not that I can't read, I'm just poor at it.

I'm writing this at 2:30 in morning after being down the pub. Anybody who knows me will probably raise an eyebrow, point their eyes upwards and think typical. But actually it takes a little Dutch courage to talk about my struggles with an ability that's not just taken for granted, it's seen as a fact of life. A simple question, how many people do you know talk about reading? Except it's not as simple as that: our entire lives are based on the written word and it's more important than anything, including maths. Nobody has feared losing a job not understanding algebra.

When I was first properly diagnosed as dyslexic, the main issue I had was not reading or writing, but my short term memory. This is the bit that makes the mundane tick. It's what we use to write a shopping list or remember the right name. When I was assessed, the man who was assessing me called it the working or cognitive memory. It's the engine of the memory process and for me, because that doesn't work, it has a knock effect.

With reading I can't focus. I have library in my old bedroom, a box room that roughly contains 400 books. Since I have been at Foyles I have bought around three a month over a ten-year period, yet I read six a year if that. I'll try to read them but it does not matter how good the book is, the chances are it will end up back on the shelf thumbed but not completed. Looking back that's always been the case. I was reading comics until I was thirteen (switching between 2000AD and Asterix) then moving on to Dune and Lord of the Rings in very quick succession. I then went backwards, this year I have not finished a book I have started and it is not through lack of trying.

Famous dyslexic authorsI have to work at understanding how a sentence is put together. That sounds daft, I know, but I have to process it consciously. It's the same as when I write (and I do try to write) - I have to think out the word works and physically think how it is spelt; I don't know my alphabet. It's not that I don't know my ABC; it's that I can't sequence, which means that I know my ABC but lose count after F.

To put it another way, if I'm trying to show a customer where the George Orwell books are I need to physically think ABCDEF until I reach O because that's the only way my mind can work. I have to reread words constantly. Is and Es get muddled up and words that are similar become confusing. As a case in point, in one of my first essays for university, I thought I'd used the word 'particular' several times only for my professor to ask why I had kept using 'particle' out of context. That's my problem: it's the foundation that is flawed.

With the advancements in technology, reading and writing have become more important not less. Emails, Twitter and Facebook are all reliant on an ability we have had for several thousand years. Its just presented in a new format, so for anybody who struggles with literacy for whatever reason the world can be a daunting place. I try not to text because it takes me so long to write a text and I struggle enough with normal English, text English leaves me bemused.

Emails are similar. I have sat in front of a screen at work for 20 minutes just trying to understand a particular word, then twice as long trying to write a normal length reply only to discover after it has been sent that there at least 200 mistakes. It is not uncommon for me get it checked before it is sent just so it will make sense

As fun as texting can be, emails are a key tool in working life, maybe we have become over reliant on it, but for anybody with literacy difficulties this is just one reason why we don't talk about it. This where I'm fortunate: there are staff at Foyles who are sympathetic and understanding, but not every person is like that.

At the age of 24 I was interviewed for a goods-in position at Dillons at which I made the mistake of admitting to being dyslexic. After around an hour of trying to explain being dyslexic, she called the bloke I would be working under and asked him if this would be an issue. Fortunately he said no. That terror of being too honest and worrying that it will cost me my job as haunted me ever since. It goes further though, there is fear of how people will react, be it a customer, friends, even family to simple thing like mispronouncing words (I do this quite often, it's how my brain processes information and it quite often gets wrong, which has got me into trouble on occasion).

I have no idea if this fear is rational or irrational, probably both, but the important thing is that it's there. So I don't admit the problems I face not even to myself. Confidence and self belief has taken a battering because I'm struggling to do what others take for granted. As I'm getting older those issues have become entrenched, I'm less likely to read, less likely to write and less willing to discuss it, which why I needed the beer to help me write this.

Yet some of my most memorable experience came from reading and writing. I have been published in my student paper, written several short stories and even read Karl Marx.

This is the double-edged sword I face. When I actually read and not walk away from the book, I want to embrace the word processor and when I write I want to browse the book shelf because deep down I love both. I just wish they came a bit easier for me.


For help and advice about dyslexia, visit the British Dyslexia Association website, email them or phone their helpline on 0845 251 9002.

Struggling readers, especially children, may benefit from the schemes being supported by the Evening Standard's Get London Reading Campaign. To find out more and how Foyles is involved, click here.


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