Books and How I Learned to Read Again After Stroke

My idea of a good time.

As I write this on November 13th 2020 I am about half way through my 45th book of the year and well on track to meet my goal of completing 50 books in 2020.

Reading is, and always has been, my greatest pleasure but there was a time when I feared it was one that would be lost to me forever. In the immediate aftermath of my stroke in August of 1997 I was completely unable to read at all: even the hospital menu cards had to be read to me and filled in by my parents. Following a consultation with my optician who, kindly, went out of his way to come to my hospital bed it was determined that my vision was unchanged by the stroke so the problem must lie elsewhere. From my point of view I could see the letters and words on the page but could make no sense of them. The effort of decoding the jumble was simply too exhausting for my broken brain.

Never again being able to curl up in pyjamas with a cup of tea and a good book was not a fate I was willing to accept so I decided to fight in much the same way I was fighting against the prospect of never walking again. Much like with physical movement, the first green shoots of improvement came while still in hospital. Every day I would take the menu card and attempt to decipher what was on offer the next day until, one day, I was able to choose breakfast before losing my track and seeking help with lunch and dinner. Each day got easier until about three weeks post-stroke when I had been transferred to a city hospital with a specialist neurology unit and was able to read and comprehend the consent form for my lumbar puncture unaided. It took a while and was exhausting but it felt great to not need someone else to do something so simple for me. By the time I left the rehabilitation unit in late October the menu cards were no big deal and I could even flip through magazines, mainly looking at the pictures and their captions rather than actually reading them, and play along with the word puzzles on Countdown during the long, boring afternoons after physiotherapy was done for the day.

Not long after my discharge from hospital I encountered something that really spurred on my efforts in re-learning to read to a new intensity. That event was the publication of Irvine Welsh’s novel “Filth”. Barely six months previously I had written a dissertation on most of Welsh’s published works as part of my C.S.Y.S. in English: the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies was the highest level of qualification offered in Scottish schools at the time so it was a fairly deep dive into the subject, which I enjoyed because Welsh’s writing was just so vivid and unlike anything I had ever encountered. Having greedily devoured his entire published output I was extremely excited for this new book. On the day of its publication my Mum was going into town to run some errands and agreed to pick up a copy for me. After spending the day doing my physiotherapy exercises I was keen to settle in for a night of reading when it became obvious that my plans were for nought when my mind collapsed after a couple of pages. While I could read it was still too exhausting to tackle this novel, not least because “Filth” has a challenging structure.

The book that broke my heart and gave me the determination to get my love of reading back. When I finally read it years later I didn’t enjoy it as much as Welsh’s previous work.

Once I had gotten the tears of frustration out of my system I went to bed and formulated a plan. I was going to read that book no matter how long and difficult the process of doing so might be. The next morning I gathered up my Mum’s lifestyle magazine and the newspaper and started my new daily ritual of reading headlines and picture captions until I reached my limit. Every day I would push myself to read a little more until I could read short pieces, slowly building until I could read a whole page article without breaking. Another invaluable tool in this early stage was BBC Ceefax and other analogue teletext services. My parents even bought a larger television set to aid me in this task. While such services, sadly, became obsolete with the advent of digital broadcasting, the Internet offers much the same services of news and entertainment in written form. During this period I became a prodigious consumer of magazines, especially those heavy on the images and started doing the daily crossword in the newspaper as an extra form of “exercise” for my mind. As my abilities progressed I found myself looking for new outlets for my love of the written word and turned to the few poetry collections I had acquired in my lifetime. The short form suited my limited stamina and I really enjoyed the simple act of reading from a book after so many months without that pleasure. Next in my journey came short stories, then novellas such as Irvine Welsh’s “The Acid House” from the collection of the same name and my favourite book of all time “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. While this all felt like work rather than pleasurable I knew that one day I would reach a point where reading was a joy once again. Over a period of many months I built up my stamina until I finally felt able to tackle short novels and non-fiction books.

Eventually I found I was reading every day, not because it was a chore, but because I was enjoying it and was keen to find out what happened next in whatever I was reading at the time.

In recent years I have found the advent of e-books to be incredibly helpful: the ability to change font and text size would have been incredibly useful to me in my early stages of building my strength, and the fact that a Kindle or similar device is so lightweight and easily operated single-handedly makes it ideal for stroke survivors like myself. I find my Kindle particularly great for books whose physical form is a large hardback which can prove very tricky without a second hand to turn the pages.

I suppose my point is that the seemingly impossible can be achieved with enough time and determination.

Now I’m off to boil the kettle and immerse myself in my current non-fiction book “The Burning Edge: Travels Through Irradiated Belarus” by Arthur Chichester (the pen name of the excellent YouTuber Bald and Bankrupt..

Addendum on January 9th 2021: I easily met my goal for the year and have already made a good start on my 52 book goal for 2021.

Yes, I did read a book in French. No, it’s not my native language. My Goodreads profile is here.

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