Reader's Block
A History of Reading Differences
Matthew Rubery


Introduction: The Unideal Reader

THIS BOOK TELLS the stories of atypical readers and the impact had on their lives by a spectrum of neurological conditions affecting their ability to make sense of the printed word. The first history of neurodivergent reading, it relies on personal testimonies that have been left out of conventional histories of reading to express how cognitive differences shape people’s experiences both on and off the page. A key premise of the book is that there is no single activity known as reading. Instead, there are multiple ways of reading (and, for that matter, not reading) despite the ease with which people use the term in conversation and act as if everyone does it in essentially the same fashion. Take a moment to consider what the term “reading” means to you. Whatever your conception of reading may be, and no matter how well you think you understand it, the examples presented here will push you to rethink the term’s scope. My aim is to defamiliarize reading, to make you sit up, like Dickens’s Joe Gargery, and say, “How interesting reading is!”1

The savant Kim Peek offers one of the most compelling examples of reading outside the box. Peek could read two pages at the same time: one with his left eye, the other with his right. It made no difference whether those pages were sideways, upside down, or reflected in a mirror. He was among the world’s fastest readers, too, finishing Tom Clancy’s doorstopper of a novel, The Hunt for Red October, in under ninety minutes.2 You might think of Peek as a scanner as much as a reader since it took him approximately fifteen seconds to store away two pages of a paperback novel with near total recall. Hence his nickname: the “Kim-puter.”3 Peek’s behavior was the inspiration for Rain Man, an award-winning film about an autistic savant with an extraordinary ability to calculate numbers. That film drew attention to not only savant abilities but also savant disabilities, for the real-life Rain Man needed help showering, dressing, and brushing his teeth. In short, Peek exemplified the variability of human minds both through his talent for memorizing entire books and through the challenges he faced in navigating a world that was not designed for minds like his. Today he would be understood more sympathetically through the lens of “neurodiversity” as someone who thinks, behaves, and interacts with the world differently than most other people.

The concept of neurodiversity emerged in the 1990s in recognition of the tremendous amount of variation found in our brains.4 Disability rights activists introduced the term to replace the notion of a so-called normal brain with a continuum of neurological differences among people: the brain versus brains. All brains are different, and dissimilar brains lead to different ways of thinking, even among people thought to be neurotypical or to have similar cognitive architecture. As neuroscientist-turned-novelist Laura Otis observes, “People’s mental worlds vary astonishingly.”5 The campaign for neurodiversity seeks recognition for neurological variations as differences rather than as defects or pathological symptoms to be marked off a checklist in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). What began as a movement to appreciate cognitive differences among individuals diagnosed with autism has since expanded to embrace numerous other conditions, including many that affect the ability to read. (I’ll be using the phrase “reading differences” instead of “reading disabilities” to move away from a framework that emphasizes deficits and difficulties over potential strengths.)

This book’s focus on neurodiversity aims to transform our understanding of the very concept of reading. Neuroscientists have long insisted that we learn most about the brain when something goes awry.6 Reader’s Block makes a similar proposal concerning reading—that much can be learned about its complexity, versatility, and seemingly inexhaustible richness by attending to those edge cases that defy expectations. My book thereby directs attention to exceptional instances—say, a stroke survivor who reads with his tongue—compelling us to rethink the term’s contours. This is merely one example of how disrupting the customary reading pathways may lead individuals to seek out alternative ways of doing it—not so much reading against the grain as reading against the brain.

Reader’s Block ventures beyond the typical reader (if there is such a thing) in order to recover the testimonies of neurodivergent readers whose encounters with print have been affected by various neurological conditions: from dyslexia, hyperlexia, and alexia to synesthesia, hallucinations, and dementia. Before going any further, then, a few diagnostic explanations may be in order, starting with the three lexias. While it is well known that dyslexia disrupts the process of learning to read during childhood, not everyone is aware that alexia, historically known as acquired illiteracy or word blindness, can deprive literate adults of the ability to read, usually as the result of a stroke, an illness, or brain trauma. A third variant, known as hyperlexia, applies to children’s precocious ability to decode words (usually before they have learned to talk) and even to memorize entire books without seeming to understand them, one of the symptoms associated with the autism spectrum.

Cognition influences reading in other ways, too. Synesthetes might see the letters of the alphabet in different colors, even when they are printed in black ink. Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited memorably describes seeing a polychromatic alphabet in which the letter “a” holds the tint of weathered wood. Others experience sensations of touch, sound, smell, or even taste while reading (for one person, the word “jail” has the flavor of bacon).7 Atypical perception blurs the line between reality and imagination in ways that go beyond the power of ordinary books. In some cases, a hyperactive visual word form area (VWFA) in the brain can induce lexical hallucinations that are difficult to distinguish from real print. These phantasms range from religious visions (the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast in the Book of Daniel) to the psychotic breaks with reality associated with schizophrenia. Finally, people with dementia may struggle to read as a result of memory loss, evoking the Struldbruggs in Gulliver’s Travels who abandon books “because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a Sentence to the end.”8

Advances in brain imaging technology and psychological assessments now make it easy to diagnose a wide range of reading differences. What has yet to be fully considered is, on one level, the influence these differences may have on specific textual encounters and, on another level, their impact on people’s lives, well-being, and sense of identity in societies that historically have stigmatized the inability to read. Reader’s Block proposes that, despite formidable obstacles, we can begin to formulate the neurodivergent reader’s phenomenological experience through personal testimonies recovered from literature, film, life writing, social media, scientific journals, medical case studies, and other sources expressing what it feels like to read in unconventional ways. Hence, the ensuing chapters set out to recover atypical responses to books that have been passed over by nearly all accounts of reading and yet warrant inspection if we want to comprehend the term’s full meaning.


The idea for this book came while I was finishing another one looking into debates over what counts as “real” reading. Time and again I encountered people who insisted on drawing a sharp line between reading and closely related activities they judged to be impostors (in that case, listening to audio books). It was not their verdicts that held my attention so much as the confidence that there was a single, coherent entity known as reading that could be neatly set apart from everything else people did with books. Is reading really that simple?

As this book contends, the most productive way to think about reading is as a loosely related set of behaviors that belong together owing to family resemblances, in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s understanding of the phrase, without having in common a single defining trait.9 Consequently, efforts to cordon off reading from nonreading are doomed to fail because there is no agreement on what qualifies as reading in the first place. The more one tries to figure out where the border lies between reading and not-reading, the more edge cases will be found to stretch the term’s elastic boundaries. My book attempts to marshal together these exceptional forms of reading into a single forum, one highlighting the challenges faced by anyone wishing to patrol the boundaries over where reading begins and ends.10 Reader’s Block moves toward an understanding of reading as a spectrum that is capacious enough to accommodate the disparate activities documented in the following chapters along with any new ones that will inevitably surface beyond its pages.

It is a curious feature of the humanities that there is no agreed meaning for one of its fundamental terms. “Mysteriously, we continue to read without a satisfactory definition of what it is we are doing,” observes Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading.11 The term is taken to be so obvious that there is no need to specify exactly what is meant by it. After all, most people read just fine without knowing what is happening in their minds. Reading is an example of what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “competence without comprehension.”12 Cognitive neuroscientists share the view that our enjoyment of reading in no way depends on grasping the neural operations underpinning it. To cite one example, Mark Seidenberg recently observed that “people tend to be good at reading without knowing much about how they do it.”13 In my experience, literary critics tend to be very good at reading without knowing much about how they do it. This is a group consisting of what cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls “overtrained readers” who have lost sight of the act’s complexity.14

Historians have all but thrown up their hands at the prospect of trying to define what happens when someone picks up a book. Steven Roger Fischer begins A History of Reading by observing that there is no simple answer because reading is a variable term, not an absolute one.15 What reading means to us today is not the same as what reading meant in past cultures or will mean in future ones. The definition continues to evolve along with humanity. “For, like thought itself,” Fischer concludes, “reading can really be anything we choose.”16 Let us avoid choosing too narrow a conception, then, lest we risk excluding the endless forms of reading (to use a Darwinian figure of speech) visible all around us.

If one aim of this book is to defamiliarize reading, another is to denaturalize it. To put it bluntly: There’s nothing natural about reading. The view of literacy as something that will just happen if kids grow up surrounded by books is a utopian one—literally, according to the future imagined in William Morris’s News from Nowhere.17 Philip Gough and Michael Hillinger’s less idealistic study “Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act,” by contrast, cautions that the average child learns to read slowly, with difficulty, and with lots of instruction.18 From an evolutionary perspective, reading’s gradual emergence over several millennia partly explains why there is so much variation in how people do it. Reading is an acquired skill, a gift of exaptation and neuroplasticity. “We were never born to read,” cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf reminds us.19 Because our brains are not hardwired or genetically programmed for reading (as they are for speech), there is no universal design for doing it. Instead, there are multiple pathways to literacy, which may vary confoundingly from one person to the next. One motive for writing this book was the sense that my own peculiar reading habits set me apart from other people in ways that I wanted to better understand. Years of speaking to people about their reading habits, covertly observing those of others, and accumulating unorthodox examples of it for this book have confirmed for me, at least, that there is no standard way of reading: There are ways of reading.

Surprisingly, one of the earliest exponents of this viewpoint was Sigmund Freud, a figure associated in literary circles less with reading than with overreading. Freud began his career as a neurologist, though, and his first book, On Aphasia, probably his least-read book among humanists, distinguishes between different types of reading in the most literal sense:

Everybody knows from self observation that there are several kinds of reading some of which proceed without understanding. When I read proofs with the intention of paying special attention to the letters and other symbols, the meaning of what I am reading escapes me to such a degree that I require a second perusal for the purpose of correcting the style. If, on the other hand, I read a novel, which holds my interest, I overlook all misprints and it may happen that I retain nothing of the names of the persons figuring in the book except for some meaningless feature, or perhaps the recollection that they were long or short, and that they contained an unusual letter such as x or z. Again, when I have to recite, whereby I have to pay special attention to the sound impressions of my words and to the intervals between them, I am in danger of caring too little about the meaning, and as soon as fatigue sets in I am reading in such a way that the listener can still understand, but I myself no longer know what I have been reading.20

Freud captures three variants that most people would agree count as reading without necessarily agreeing that they are the same kind of reading. (The auditor of Freud’s recitation might even represent a fourth type—of comprehension without, strictly speaking, decoding.) If we break down the reading process into two key components, word recognition and comprehension, then it becomes apparent that the emphasis can be placed on either one. The equation discerned by Freud is now orthodoxy among educationalists: the more cognitive resources spent on decoding, the fewer available for comprehension. This explains why a person may be said to have read a book even if that person confesses afterward to not having understood a word of it. Freud was ahead of his time in acknowledging that there is no single way to read but rather an assortment of techniques that we use depending on our circumstances, situations, and purposes. Proof reading, deep reading, reading aloud: All three are strategies that people deploy and switch between throughout the day. If the term can comfortably accommodate these three conflicting methods of reading, then why not more?

Educational psychologists have long recognized the need to expand the term’s definition to accommodate different ways of doing it. The psycholinguist Frank Smith once declared that searching for a single definition would be pointless; for him, disputes over what we mean by reading are really disputes over language.21 Even generic formulations along the lines of “being able to understand text” or “getting meaning from print” capture only one aspect of the process while saying nothing about what readers do, either physically or mentally, to achieve that goal.22 Such imprecision may be strategically necessary, of course, since not everyone reads in the same way. To insist otherwise would be to endorse what cognitive psychologist Sally Andrews calls the “uniformity assumption,” the supposition that all readers share identical cognitive architecture enabling them to read in a similar fashion.23 The varied forms of reading identified by my book will thus be unrecognizable to anyone accustomed to doing it in a particular way.

Literary critics themselves have taken notice of how many ways there are to read. Although this group tends to be preoccupied with different methods of interpretation (close, distant, slow, hyper, and so forth) over other aspects of the process, a resurgence of interest in reading has moved the conversation away from hermeneutics and toward the various ways people do it.24 Scholars have drawn on fields as different as education, history, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and computational science to gain a better understanding of reading practices—not “doing a reading” but reading, actually. This renewed attention to the term’s heterogeneous meanings encompasses everything from the mechanics of reading to the affective, cognitive, and physiological dimensions of it that vary from one person to the next. Perhaps the one thing everyone agrees on is that the meaning of the term “reading” is anything but self-evident.

The humanities’ reluctance to pin down the concept may even turn out to be a virtue. Whereas quantitatively minded disciplines such as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and computer science have sought to define the term with algorithmic precision, many humanists remain comfortable with a fuzzy, unconstrained usage pointing in several directions at once. In fact, much recent scholarship advocates expanding the term further to make room for emerging, marginal, or misunderstood forms of it (think of outliers like audiobooks, braille, and sign language). Media theorist Katherine Hayles has called for a reconceptualization of reading in response to the multimedia ecologies of the twenty-first century, for example, and media historian Mara Mills advocates an expansive understanding of the term to include accessible formats designed for people with physical disabilities.25 Reader’s Block pushes this evolution one step further by asking us to consider neurodiversity, too.

Bringing attention to emerging genres of life writing, from dyslexia to dementia memoirs, alongside alternative perspectives on more familiar titles (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Little Women to The Bell Jar and Still Alice), Reader’s Block contributes to longstanding interest among literary critics in analyzing the methods, ethics, and representations of reading by evaluating atypical styles of doing it. Drawing on the latest research on reading from multiple disciplinary perspectives, it seeks to expand our understanding of a fundamental term in literary studies, sharpen the figurative terms (“close,” “paranoid,” “surface,” and so forth) used to describe various methods of doing it, and assess the potential influence alternative modes of reading have over textual encounters. Specifically, Reader’s Block pushes literary studies to recognize how neglected aspects of the reading process—from decoding and comprehension to affect, attention, memory, perception, sensations, and mental imagery—precede or feed into interpretation to shape people’s understanding of texts.

Before going any further, it is worth restating that there is no hard border between neurodivergent and neurotypical readers. We are talking about a spectrum of reading abilities here. Many individuals classified as neurodiverse read in conventional ways, just as those presumed to be neurotypical can interact with books in ways that might raise an eyebrow. To take a famous example, the iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan insisted on reading only the righthand pages of books while relying on his brain to supply the missing info.26 (Neurological patients who are genuinely oblivious to one side of the page are sometimes encouraged to tie a brightly colored ribbon onto their left wrist.27) Can McLuhan be said to have “read” those books? This would be a hard question to answer satisfactorily using our existing vocabulary and classifications, both of which this book seeks to expand.

No sooner do we define reading than we run into exceptions. Bearing that lesson in mind, this book resists the temptation to replace one definition of reading with another. Whereas the prevailing approaches begin with a definition of reading before adjudicating whether subsequent examples fit, my approach starts with examples and then asks how our conception of reading can accommodate them. This method of exemplification, again influenced by Wittgenstein, seeks to reach an understanding of the term via concrete instances instead of a common element.28 Presenting atypical styles should help clarify the concept of reading as an ensemble of disparate activities that sometimes fall outside of general formulations describing what happens when somebody picks up a book. Proceeding by way of example stretches the catchall term “reading” to accommodate the sorts of behavior that do not fit comfortably within existing definitions of the term. But enough talk about reading. Let me show you what I have in mind.


Few absolutes exist when it comes to reading. Nearly every convention associated with the activity of reading (that it involves visually decoding graphic symbols, moving from left to right across the page, proceeding horizontally instead of vertically) turns out to apply only to particular ways of doing it. People can decode words using senses besides vision (namely, touch, hearing, even smell). Sentences can be written from left to right (as in English and modern European languages), right to left (as in Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew), or alternate between the two (as in the Greek system known as boustrophedon). With practice, it is possible to read in any direction, even if you are accustomed to a particular orientation. When it comes to reading, there are so many exceptions to the rule because there is no rule. Choose any aspect of reading you think essential, and I will show you someone who does it in a different way.

This book’s chapters focus on those neurological conditions most relevant to reading: dyslexia, hyperlexia, alexia, synesthesia, hallucinations, and dementia. But neurodiversity encompasses other conditions, too (ranging from depression and bipolar disorder to epilepsy and Tourette syndrome), that influence reading less pervasively but no less profoundly. The following illustrations offer a sense of how neurological and psychiatric conditions not covered elsewhere in this book may shape people’s textual encounters. For clarity, these readers will be placed into two categories: those who have experienced the onset of symptoms gradually over time and those who find their lives suddenly disrupted by illness, injury, or other traumatic events.

Let’s start with the conditions that emerge over the course of one’s life. Bibliotherapy has drawn considerable attention to reading’s impact on mental health.29 My book turns that equation on its head by looking at how mental health influences reading—or, it bears repeating, not reading. Bibliotherapists may advocate the therapeutic benefits of literature, but such regimens only work if someone is able to read in the first place. People may struggle to read when they are anxious, depressed, manic, stressed, traumatized, sleep-deprived, or otherwise psychologically maladjusted. The right state of mind is a prerequisite to immersing oneself in a book.

For anyone in a troubled state of mind, books represent both cause and cure. John Stuart Mill famously turned to poetry for consolation at his lowest ebb.30 Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, by contrast, warns the impressionable reader to skip over the tract’s list of symptoms lest “he trouble or hurt himself.”31 The very act of reading has a therapeutic effect for some people. Samuel Johnson kept a book next to his bed to ward off the “black dog” that kept him awake at night; books played a crucial role in what he referred to as “the management of the mind.”32 But unmanageable minds stop others from seeking refuge there in the first place. Merely opening a book, never mind reading one, might be too exhausting when in the black dog’s company. As Andrew Solomon recalls in The Noonday Demon, leafing through a magazine felt like a Herculean task even though he was usually a voracious reader. Libraries offered no consolation: “My house is full of books I can’t read.”33

The correlation between depression and a distaste for books is a venerable one. A key symptom of the medieval notion of acedia, a spiritual torpor related to depression, was that it prevented monks from deriving solace from sacred texts. Thus the Regula Benedicti appointed two elder monks to look out for any member “not intent upon his reading” who might be in need of the brethren’s intervention.34 Historically, reading has been diagnosed as both a source and a symptom of melancholy—too much and too little reading were considered equally risky to one’s health. If overexerting the mind led to melancholic thoughts, as physicians of antiquity believed, reading remains on the modern psychiatric list of clinical symptoms of depression, too, albeit in the inverted form of patients who find it difficult to follow what they are reading.35

Knowing what you are missing out on makes reading’s absence feel even worse. The psychologist Stuart Sutherland spent most days reading and writing before a mental breakdown in his mid-forties. As he explains in his memoir, “so unremitting and painful were my thoughts that I was virtually unable to read.”36 The inability to read even the newspaper was “a singularly refined torture” for that inveterate reader.37 If some people seek comfort in books at their lowest moments, mental illness blocks other people from reading when it is most needed. Those who have gone long spells without reading may therefore experience its restoration as a step toward recovery. After coming out of a prolonged depression, the writer Matt Haig found himself reading with an intensity he’d never known before, turning from someone who “liked” books into someone who “needed” them.38

Mental health can influence not only whether you read but also what you read. According to Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, Daniel Smith’s bibliotherapy consisted of randomly choosing library books whose opening lines soothed his feelings of unease. Anything that succeeded in thawing the icicle in his chest (Smith’s equivalent to the “tingling spine” used by Nabokov to gauge a book’s worth) went home with him: Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, Ernest Hemingway, William Styron, and John Updike all made the cut.39 Triggering sentences stayed on the shelf (with apologies to John Cheever, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, William Gaddis, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon). Self-medicating in this way helped him to find not just a double but a diagnosis in the likes of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman.

The title of clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, An Unquiet Mind, points toward the potential downsides to bipolar disorder. If manic highs made Jamison feel like she could do anything, the inevitable lows blocked her from doing something as simple as reading a book. Her lapses in concentration match those found in other accounts of depression. “I would read the same passage over and over again only to realize that I had no memory at all for what I just had read,” she tells us. “Each book or poem I picked up was the same way. Incomprehensible.”40 The medication keeping her moods level simultaneously keeps her away from books. Jamison rightly worried less about lithium’s physical side effects (nausea, vomiting, occasional toxicity) than its psychological ones (impaired concentration, attention span, and memory) since she ends up going from reading three to four books per week to not reading a single one in over a decade. Sometimes rereading lines while taking copious notes was enough to counteract the medication. “Even so,” she admits, “what I read often disappeared from my mind like snow on a hot pavement.”41 The following advice appears on her list of “Rules for the Gracious Acceptance of Lithium into Your Life”: “Try not to let the fact that you can’t read without effort annoy you. Be philosophical. Even if you could read, you probably wouldn’t remember most of it anyway.”42 A key stage of recovery for Jamison, as for so many others affected by depression, comes when she is able to resume reading.

The poet Susanne Antonetta likewise blamed bipolar disorder for a case of reader’s block that stopped her from finishing books despite her desire to do so. “I wanted to read, and my books had charm for me,” she recalls in A Mind Apart, “but the words slid off the page or stuck, gnarls in a river.”43 Antonetta found her reading derailed by arbitrary word aversions that repelled her like the wrong pole of a magnet. Such is the force of these trigger words that she felt unable to repeat them even in her own book. Word infatuations could be equally debilitating. When Antonetta’s eyes paused to linger over captivating words like “smooth” and “lush,” she found it difficult to resume reading.

Anyone who has experienced seizures triggered by print will have good cause to remain wary of books. For them, continuing to read after the appearance of symptoms like facial muscle spasms and jaw clicking may lead to convulsions and loss of consciousness.44 What is called “reading epilepsy” might have been responsible for the travails of the Victorian polymath Herbert Spencer, who experienced unpleasant “head-sensations” while finishing The Principles of Psychology (1855). As Spencer recalls in his Autobiography, “One morning soon after beginning work, there commenced a sensation in my head—not pain, nor heat, nor fullness, nor tension, but simply a sensation, bearable enough but abnormal.”45 Over the coming months Spencer found himself unable to read novels without suffering from what he called “hot head.”46

People may not even know that they have reading epilepsy until waking up in an ambulance after losing consciousness midway through a sentence.47 These readers usually recall feeling a sense of confusion while viewing the page, followed by a blackout. A teenager described himself “sticking to a word” immediately before a fit.48 For this group, more than aesthetic preferences are at stake when choosing a font. One woman found that certain fonts (say, Times New Roman) provoked seizures, whereas reading the identical passage set in other typefaces had no effect. Minutes after starting to read a hazardous font, she felt a “strange sensation in her throat,” followed by an unresponsive staring spell lasting for several minutes.49 An electroencephalogram (EEG) confirmed the disparity by measuring the electrical activity in the woman’s brain while she read the opening pages of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in multiple fonts. Researchers attributed the difference to serifs, the extra strokes used by typefaces to finish off letters.

Many of the preceding examples illustrate how mental health affects literacy: mind over manuscript. Our brains influence every aspect of literacy, from the deciphering of graphic symbols down to the way we feel about those symbols and even about books themselves. But the brain plays an equally prominent role in conditions like Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder that are not usually associated with reading disabilities. The tics or convulsive movements and sounds made by people with Tourette’s may have an impact on their intellectual lives as much as their social lives. Carl Bennett’s obsessive tendencies, a common trait among those with Tourette’s, made it difficult to complete homework while attending medical school. “I’d have to read each line many times,” he recalled.50 The need to align paragraphs symmetrically in his visual field; to balance syllables; to make punctuation proportionate; to check a letter’s frequency; and to repeat words, phrases, or lines all made fluent reading difficult. His symptoms interfered with his capacity to read until he stumbled upon a breakthrough: The ritual of riding an exercise bike while smoking a pipe at the same time calmed him enough to read without tics (except for the occasional hoot).

Bennett’s regime calls to mind one of history’s best-known, and most idiosyncratic, readers: Samuel Johnson (who it has been speculated also had Tourette’s).51 Johnson was renowned for his ferocious appetite for books, as we know from vivid eyewitness accounts. One spectator recalled watching Johnson reading a book “over which he seesawed at such a violent rate as to excite the curiosity of some people at a distance to come and see what was the matter with him.”52 Perusing pages seems to have been therapeutic for Johnson, who rocked back and forth while holding books in a contorted posture that soothed his nerves. This was bibliotherapy in the most literal sense of the word.

Others found books impossible to put down—and not because they were page-turners. The completionist drive to finish everything could be exhausting for readers. According to a biographer, Nikola Tesla started the works of Voltaire before realizing that, in order to find peace of mind, he would have to finish close to a hundred volumes written by “that monster.”53 Compulsive reading drove others to read the same text multiple times. (Clinical tests used to screen for obsessive-compulsive behavior sometimes ask whether a patient feels the need to read passages more than once.54) The television host Marc Summers found himself reading the same paragraph thirty times. “I couldn’t stop myself. I had no idea why,” he explains in Everything in Its Place: My Trials and Triumphs with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “We have to do whatever it is that we do over and over until it’s perfect.”55 Perversely, repetitive reading—not to be confused with the more benign practice of repeat reading—interfered with efforts to remember what has been read. One woman affected by reading compulsions recalled being too fixated on reading every sixth word six times to recall anything from the text.56 Yet the elaborate rules governing this group’s reading habits were not without compensatory benefits, including holding at bay distressing thoughts. Summers used to worry that reading a paragraph in the wrong way would kill his parents.57


1. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. Margaret Cardwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 42.

2. Fran Peek, The Real Rain Man: Kim Peek, ed. Stevens W. Anderson (Salt Lake City: Harkness, 1996), 16.

3. Fran Peek and Lisa Hanson, The Life and Message of the Real Rain Man: The Journey of a Mega-Savant (Port Chester, NY: Dude Publishing, 2008), 53.

4. The term “neurodiversity” has a complex genealogy in blogs, journalism, memoirs, websites, and scholarship. One of the most accessible introductions to the concept is Thomas Armstrong, The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010).

5. Laura Otis, Rethinking Thought: Inside the Minds of Creative Scientists and Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3.

6. See, for example, V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 46.

7. Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 37.

8. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Robert DeMaria Jr. (New York: Penguin, 2001), 197.

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 32 / §67.

10. The neurological forms of reader’s block discussed by this book should be distinguished from previous uses of the term to describe, for instance: psychological obstacles in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins,” in Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, ed. Sedgwick and Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 1–28; the accumulation of anecdotes collated by David Markson, Reader’s Block (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1996); the antisocial uses of books in Leah Price, “Reader’s Block,” Victorian Studies 46.2 (2004): 231–242; or the diminished motivation associated with age in Geoff Dyer, “Reader’s Block,” in Working the Room: Essays and Reviews, 1999–2010 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), 343–347.

11. Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1996), 39.

12. Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 75.

13. Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 3. See also Daniel T. Willingham, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017).

14. Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (London: Penguin, 2009), 219.

15. Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Reading (London: Reaktion, 2005), 11.

16. Fischer, A History of Reading, 343.

17. William Morris, News from Nowhere, ed. David Leopold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 25.

18. Philip B. Gough and Michael L. Hillinger, “Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act,” Bulletin of the Orton Society 30.1 (1980): 179–195.

19. Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 3. On the brain’s repurposing of neuronal networks for reading, see Dehaene, Reading in the Brain.

20. Sigmund Freud, On Aphasia: A Critical Study (New York: International Universities Press, 1953), 75–76.

21. Frank Smith, Reading Without Nonsense, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1985), 93.

22. Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation, “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 19.1 (2018): 5–51, at 6; Keith Rayner et al., “How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2.2 (2001): 31–74, at 34.

23. Sally Andrews, “Individual Differences in Skilled Visual Word Recognition and Reading: The Role of Lexical Quality,” in Visual Word Recognition, Volume 2: Meaning and Context, Individuals and Development, ed. James S. Adelman (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2012), 151.

24. On the move away from hermeneutics among literary studies, see Rachel Sagner Buurma and Matthew K. Gold, “Contemporary Proposals About Reading in the Digital Age,” in A Companion to Literary Theory, ed. David H. Richter (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2018), 139–150; Deidre Shauna Lynch and Evelyne Ender, “Introduction—Time for Reading,” PMLA 133.5 (2018): 1073–1082; and “Introduction: Reading Spaces,” PMLA 134.1 (2019): 9–17; and Matthew Rubery and Leah Price, eds., Further Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

25. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 79; Mara Mills, “What Should We Call Reading?” Flow (December 3, 2012): 2012/12/what-should-we-call-reading/

26. McLuhan describes his elective hemineglect in “My Reading Habits (1967),” YouTube (August 29, 2012):

27. Jenni A. Ogden, Trouble in Mind: Stories from a Neuropsychologist’s Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 90.

28. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 19–20.

29. Sarah McNicol and Liz Brewster, eds., Bibliotherapy (London: Facet, 2018).

30. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, ed. John M. Robson (New York: Penguin, 1989).

31. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (London: J. M. Dent, 1932), 38.

32. James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 690.

33. Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Scribner, 2001), 99.

34. Quoted in Siegfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), 28.

35. Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (London: Nelson, 1964), 85; Stanley W. Jackson, Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 191.

36. N. S. Sutherland, Breakdown: A Personal Crisis and a Medical Dilemma, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3.

37. Sutherland, Breakdown, 3.

38. Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016), 130. Emphasis in original.

39. Daniel Smith, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 136.

40. Kay R. Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (London: Picador, 2015), 37.

41. Jamison, Unquiet Mind, 95.

42. Jamison, Unquiet Mind, 98.

43. Susanne Antonetta, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2007), 2.

44. R. G. Bickford et al., “Reading Epilepsy: Clinical and Electroencephalographic Studies of a New Syndrome,” Transactions of the American Neurological Association 81 (1956): 100–102.

45. Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, 2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), 1:467.

46. Spencer, An Autobiography, 1:474. For a fuller account of Spencer’s symptoms, see Martin N. Raitiere, “Did Herbert Spencer Have Reading Epilepsy?” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 20.4 (2011): 357–367.

47. Abena D. Osei-Lah et al., “Focal Reading Epilepsy—A Rare Variant of Reading Epilepsy: A Case Report,” Epilepsia 51.11 (2010): 2352–2356.

48. M. Koutroumanidis et al., “The Variants of Reading Epilepsy. A Clinical and Video-EEG Study of 17 Patients with Reading-Induced Seizures,” Brain 121.8 (1998): 1409–1427, at 1416.

49. Donald F. Weaver, “Font Specific Reading-Induced Seizures,” Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery 125 (2014): 210–211, at 210.

50. Quoted in Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (London: Picador, 1995), 81.

51. John Wiltshire, Samuel Johnson in the Medical World: The Doctor and the Patient (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 29–34.

52. Samuel Johnson, Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1897), 2:297. Robert DeMaria Jr. discusses additional accounts in Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

53. Quoted in Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), 39.

54. See, for example, statement 42 in Ezio Sanavio, “Obsessions and Compulsions: The Padua Inventory,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 26.2 (1988): 169–177.

55. Marc Summers, Everything in Its Place: My Trials and Triumphs with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999), 72–73.

56. Amy Wilensky, Passing for Normal: Tourette’s, OCD and Growing Up Crazy (London: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 151.

57. Summers, Everything in Its Place, 42.