THE VISUALITY OF READING – Part 2


Whenever I lecture or give seminars about the interrelationship of vision and reading, I tell audience participants that Dr. Seuss had tongue firmly in cheek with the title of his book, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut”.

Slowly the medical and educational fields are re-discovering the role of vision with regard to learning in general, and reading in particular.  “Stereo Sue” Barry, in her book Fixing My Gaze, has a wonderful chapter titled “School Crossings”.  Sue addresses the challenges of a school-aged child entirely dependent on her mother for educational needs related to reading.  After 3 eye muscle surgeries her parents were assured that her eyes were fine.  They were, but her vision was inadequate.

In his forthcoming book, The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks includes Sue’s powerful experiences as one of his six clinical vignettes.  Another piece that he will feature is the saga of Howard Engel.  In his latest New Yorker essay, detailed below, Oliver references Engel’s book, The Man Who Forgot How To Read.  If the title sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  It’s patterned after Sacks’ best-seller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and Sacks wrote the afterword to Engel’s 2007 rehab autobiography.

Engel may have lost his ability to read effectively, but the man can sure still write.  He observes:  “The letters of the words appeared as though I was trying to make them out through a heat haze; the letters wobbled and changed shape as I attempted to make them out.  What looked like an “a” one moment looked like an “e” the next and a “w” after that.  It was like astigmatism on a drunken weekend.  Through my eyes a checkerboard became op-art.”

The instability of print.  The changability of focus.  The increased cognitive burden.  With words not uncommon from patients who struggle with visual aspects of reading, Engel continues:

“As a letter-by-letter reader I was not able to scan a page , and the whole process was exhausting beyond belief … Words of different lengths are processed in my head at a different rate.  Each added letter adds more weight to the load I am trying to lift.”

In his afterword, Oliver Sacks explains:

“We normally think of reading as a seamless, indivisible act … reading in fact involves a number of separate processes and stages from basic perceptual processes to higher level abilities to decipher and interpret what one is seeing … the visuality of reading”.

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