My son wanted to read The Communist Manifesto, and I told him, “Just read a summary.”
“I majored in political history and I read very few books. You don’t have to read books.”
He didn’t believe me. He heard about Lawrence Lessig’s book, They Don’t Represent Us. I bought it on Amazon but I knew he couldn’t read it.
I reminded him about psychological evaluation. He has dyslexia. When he reads he gets a headache, and soon after he falls asleep. “Do you remember? I am not making this up. It’s real.”
“I remember,” he says, “I just don’t want it to be true.”
“I know. But I have a surprise for you.”
I show him an article.
“What? You’re giving me a surprise to cheer me up about reading and it’s reading?”
“Okay. Okay. I’m giving you the highlights.”
A college professor discusses how reading for college is not like reading for pleasure. This makes sense to me because many college courses have 20 books in a semester plus four or five eight-page papers. There’s no time to read every page. But no one ever teaches kids how to get through that course load.
I learned by having a breakdown in the middle of college. I just stopped reading. I decided I wasn’t worthy of my courses and I basically started failing all my classes. I didn’t know I had dyslexia and that’s why I fell asleep every time I tried to read something difficult. But I’m not sure knowing would have helped. Because even neurotypical kids can’t read that many books a semester.
It turns out the best students don’t read the books. This professor explains the secret as the secret was explained to him, by his professor: “You absorb the essential contents so that you can discuss the author’s ideas and evidence intelligently in that week’s seminar…you read the book’s introduction and conclusion, and the introduction and conclusion of individual chapters…If desperate, you can get by with only a scholarly book review.”
My son is shocked. Then fascinated. He tries the tactic and can’t believe it works.
“Wait,” I tell him. “There’s more.”
The professor says that when he became a professor he did the same thing his professors did. He had several hundred books on his course lists and he had not read any of them. He wrote his books in a way that people who don’t read books could read his books. His bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. He said, “I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process of becoming an academic very nearly killed my love of reading.”
My son says, “It’s okay. I never loved to read. I just liked the ideas. So this will work fine for me.”
There are very few times I wish I had pushed my son to do college-level work earlier. But this is one of those times because we have wasted so much of his adolescence worrying about how to deal with dyslexia when the people who can read just fine weren’t really reading anyway.