I Can Barely Comprehend

So while I haven’t checked in with her about it lately, Stella and I have a bet for this year to see who can read more books (the winner buys lunch/dinner).  We’ve done it before and I’ve won, although I employed a graphic novel loophole to do it.  So this year, it’s straight books, and a look at my Goodreads list shows 21 books.  That’s not too bad, but I seem to be running across a problem here, which is that I’m having trouble remembering what I’ve read.

It’s not like I’m not paying attention to what I’ve been reading; what is happening is that I will read a book, enjoy it (or maybe not), but then a few weeks might go by and when I spot the book on my shelf, I cannot remember what it was about or what happened.  Okay, that sounds dramatic, like this is the point in the This is Us episode that gets flashed back to as the “we all should have realized something was wrong” moment.  Plus, this isn’t anything new because it’s been happening to me since I was in high school (or maybe earlier and I just remember it from high school).

The book was To Kill A Mockingbird.  We were assigned to read it and have it finished over the course of a few weeks, which I did.  The day it was due, we had a plot test, which Mrs. Taber, my 10th grade English teacher, described as answering questions based on “who did what to whom.”  It was a ton of questions–I want to say 100–and they were all about the details of the novel.  I took it, and having really enjoyed the book, was pretty confident that I did well.  So imagine my shock when I got the test back a few days later and the grade was a 65.

This was completely unacceptable.  A 65 was not a grade I wanted or needed, and while I rebounded with an A on the literary analysis essay, this would dog me for the remainder of sophomore year and all of junior year.  Every time we finished a novel, we would have a plot test and I would bomb it (read: get lower than a B.  Don’t look at me like that.  I was an honors student.  I didn’t get C’s).  I could analyze the hell out of anything and pump out essays with expertise, but remembering what happened to Phineas in chapter four of A Separate Peace before we had class discussions about the book?  Yeah, forget that.

It’s important to note, by the way, that I didn’t tell anyone about this.  I didn’t talk to my parents and certainly didn’t ask for extra help from a teacher or guidance counselor.  Why would I?  I was an honors student and we didn’t have these problems.  To me, at the time, it was a matter of sucking it up and trying to improve, no matter how much my English grade suffered as a result.

As I went into college and was assigned more complex texts, I tried to develop strategies for better comprehension, especially after I had a notoriously shitty first semester (and in retrospect should have taken a gap year but that would have brought shame and dishonor to my family).  These included writing int he margins of the books I’d purchased, taking notes in a notebook, and sometimes–but not often–talking to Cliff.  And while I didn’t always adhere to these methods, I can say that when I did, they were effective.

But this issue has continued through my adult life, especially when I take it upon me to read a work of literature that is either pre-20th Century or is more complicated than your average piece of popcorn reading.  I’m not a fan of 19th Century English literature to begin with, but I can tell you that there are entire sections from a number of novels from that period that I had a hard time following, comprehending, and interpreting.  Which, of course, made for a heck of a performance on a number of Required Reading episodes.

So I sit here right now trying to figure out why I have a hard time with some of the books I read, even though I love to read.  Why cannot I not comprehend, or in some cases, even begin to engage with them?  I wonder if, since this issue dates back to high school, it’s connected to what I’m starting to wonder is some form of ADHD that was never diagnosed (1980s kid + honors student + “we don’t talk about these things” + “what will people say if …” = undiagnosed and untreated issues that pop up later in life).  And if it’s not that, it might just be due to my tendency to to multitask to the point where I spread myself too thin.  In fact, one of my latest anxieties comes when I spend what I think is too much time on one task because I am either not used to working on something without being interrupted or as I’m working I feel guilty that I’m not doing something else I am supposed to be doing (and I won’t even get started on how guilty I feel if I’m working on something that is not earning me money).

That anxiety is very real, by the way, as I will get physically agitated and want to leave because of the length of time I am spending on that task, even if it is something important or I am “locked in”.  It’s happening right now as I am typing this–I have been typing this for about fifteen minutes and just realized that I never made breakfast for my son and I probably should check my work email.  Never mind that I’m coming to the end of this post and those things will still be there or get done even if I wait five more minutes.  When all is said and done, it’s likely I’ll forget what I did–although my recall is pretty good and I can remember something a few minutes after brushing up on it.

So I’m clearly a mess here, and while I “uncollect” several things from my physical space, I continue to have things ping-ponging around my mental space, making me wonder if I should slow things down so I can finally understand what the heck is going on.

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