Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Steinbeck, Obsession & Strokes

Part of my “reading therapy” is "to read." It seems so simple. My 3rd grade son has to read every day for twenty minutes. I need to do the same as my son.

But, it is not simple for many reasons. It has been over 2 years since my strokes, and I do a lot of visual and reading therapy. “Reading” is fundamental. When you have a stroke, nothing is fundamental. The basic skill of reading was lost when I had my two strokes.
Twin Falls Public Library

I grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho. I loved the public library. When I was a kid, I would ride my bike to the library. I still remember the smell of the library and the smell of the books. It excited me even then.

I remember when I discovered Agatha
Christie and her mystery novels. I would check out one of her books, and I would go across from the library to the City Park by the Band Shell where I would read the book under a shade tree. It was heaven!

In high school, in the 11th grade, I took a class called “Novels.” The first day, the teacher said we will read “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. She said, “We will discuss the book throughout the semester, but do not get too far ahead of yourself. Just enjoy the book.”

I did. However, I read the 640 page book over that first weekend.

I was obsessed with the book. During that semester, I devoured not just “East of Eden,” but also Steinbeck’s other works like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” By Christmas, I finished “Travels with Charley.” And the semester was over.

My teacher said, “You are an overachiever aren't you?” We both laughed. I got an “A.”

The term “obsession” completely describes my reading habits. The first book I read cover-to-cover without stopping was “Where are the Children?” by Mary Higgins Clark. I was in the fifth grade. I read a lot of her books in grade school and throughout high school.

My first reading obsession was the “Hardy Boy’s.” I still have all of those books. 

When I discovered an author I liked, I would obsess. Alexander Dumas, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Ayn Rand, Peter Straub, Richard Bach, Ken Follett, Edward Rutherfurd, Lee Child, Peter Robinson, Jonathon Kellerman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Greg Iles, Michael Connelly, JK Rowling, Val McDermott, Ann Rice, John Saul, Theodore H White, Brad Meltzer, Preston and Child, Dean Koontz, Pearl Buck, Stieg Larsson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Edward Radzinsky, Robert K. Massie, William Golding, Thomas Hardy, Colleen McCullough, William Shakespeare, Sinclair Lewis, John Irving, JD Salinger, Antonia Fraser, Charles Finch, Theodore Dreiser, Marianne Ziemer Bradley, David Balducci, Stephen E. Ambrose, etc. And of course, Agatha Christie.

I was also obsessed with history and topics like Russian history, Idaho history, political history, American history, mysteries, thrillers, all sorts of biographies, etc.

These authors and subjects were my favorites.  But, I read thousands of books I called “throwaways.” I read anytime, anywhere, etc. My brother Steve Dunham and I share the love of reading, and we would talk about books a lot.

When I had my strokes, I lost so many things. The loss of reading was probably the worst. Simply put, I could not read at all. In those early days in the hospital and later I had intense therapy 6 times a week, my doctors, therapists, my family and me, admittedly, assessed my deficits. When they discovered that I could follow TV shows, it was a huge victory.    

As the months and now years passed, I slowly recovered a semblance of my "new" normal self.  

However, reading was a dreadful dilemma. I would try to read, but I could not. Because of the stroke, I lost my right peripheral vision. Also, I could not “track” and my eyes would not “team.” When I would try to read, I would lose my place because I missed the right side margins.

The fact that I could remember plots of books was a great victory because many stroke survivors have short term memory loss.

But the problem for me was the basic process of reading. Margins are an issue. My reading speed is an issue. My reading comprehension is an issue.       

I used to read so fast. I would read several books at the same time. I would was a speed reader. I just loved knowledge and books. 

Now, I have to concentrate very hard. I need to focus on every word. I cannot have any distractions. I cannot ruminate because I used to think about other things when I was reading. When I write my blog, I speak the words aloud when I type. The disconnect in my brain makes it easier if I “hear” things.

“People” say things like, “Well, you can ‘read’ audiobooks.” When people say things like that to me, I hearken back to 40 years ago in the city park reading Agatha Christie. Audiobooks do not “do it for me.” Everday I think about the loss of reading. I know that my brother Steve is devastated for me because he know more the most that reading is life.

But now, like a good soldier and the good student I was, my assignment from my therapist is to “read” every day. I downloaded a Kindle book. It is a mystery authored by Greg Iles. I am using my “readers” and my “prism” glasses to offset when my eyes do not “team.” I consciously have to read slower and focus on every word.

But, I am doing it! I know I will never read like I used too which is hard to reconcile. It is a struggle and laborious. I do not enjoy it at all. 

I read a lot of information for the many volunteer roles I have like the College of Western Idaho, the American Heart/Stroke Association, and the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. So, I can do "it."   


The biggest difference for me, I used to read voraciously for pleasure. That is gone now. It is a grueling chore now.   

However, as promised, I am reading my Greg Iles novel now. I am reading more than I should! I have almost finished that book way ahead of schedule. 

It is hard in many ways. Old habits die hard.  It is 11th grade over again. Maybe I will read “East of Eden” again….

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