Trompler Foundation Archives
  [from The New York Times, quite a while ago, here reprinted without permission]

Fear of Reading

by Marcelle Clements

Although this is the era in which flaws in the emotional and psychological developments of every man, woman, child, and dog have been scrutinized in the most miniscule detail, there seems to be no organized interest in one of the most painful afflictions known: lexical anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure while reading.

The anguish of those suffering is appalling. Yet no one cares. Dismissed with the epithet "bookworm," all addicted readers (whether they are currently reading or not!) are judged to be alike by an indifferent population. They are patronizingly endured but not treated by the medical establishment. Yet many could be helped if research were financed in this field. Some might even be saved.

Clinically, lexical anhedonia is chiefly characterized by the inability to suspend disbelief or its inverted retrograde, inability to sustain appropriate distance from the text.

What follows is a partial list of dysfunctions and their variations. (Caveat: In perusing the following, readers may fall victim to "medical school syndrome" and recognize every symptom as their own. Remember: If you have been able to read this far, your case is not hopelessly advanced.)

[Inability to read at normal tempo for 20 minutes or more]

Magnification: Single words or sentences fill the mind. Certain writers are conducive to this symptom. Proust is probably the most notorious. In extreme cases, the mind attaches itself as if with glue to punctuation. One stares at a semicolon, attempting to extrapolate therefrom the sensibility, creative depth and sociocultural influences of the author.

Instant Aphasia: Reading the same sentence over and over again, and it doesn't make sense. (Or you forget that you ever read it before.)

Lexical Masochism: Inability to read without constantly noting how intellectually enfeebled on has become, eventually leading the reader to give up all reading except magazines. Members of the baby boom cohort are especially subject to this since their intellectual decline dovetails with the increasing complexity and conceptual difficulty of the fiction they believe they ought to be reading.

The Satyr Obstruction: Inability to read because all you can think of is sex. (Alternatives: food or death.)

Prima Bibliodysfunction: The following are symptoms which relate to the first page or, in extreme cases, occur immediately upon reading the first sentence:
a) The Pinocchio Complex: Believing that everything you read is a lie. (In the case of books on Central America, the sufferer is unable to distinguish his own symptom from objective reality.)
b) Mnemonic Undertow: Everything you read reminds you of something else you've read.
c) Remembrance of Reading Past: Everything you read reminds you of the circumstances in your home at the time you learned to read and you are overwhelmed by your early traumas.
d) Miscellaneous Bibliodysfunction: Aversion to the typeface used; an onslaught of shivers every time you touch the paper; thinking the book smells funny.
[Excessive dysphoria due to content]

Mal de Vivre Flashback: Often to be endured while reading the novels of American males of the 20th century. The world seems too mean and hard to continue living.

Pathological Over-Identification Defense: This warning sign of lexical anhedonia is so common that it is often ignored: How many of us, by a strange coincidence, start to palpate our own bodies and restrain the urge to call our doctor halfway through Solzhenitsyns's "Cancer Ward"? Is there a soul who does not consider having an affair while reading "Madame Bovary"? Is there a woman alive able to read English authors and still trust men?

Pathological Overstimulation: Or, in advanced cases, the mere fear of overstimulation. Grossly exaggerated especially when, as is often the case, a book has a sexy title but a "safe" text, n.b. "Hotel du Lac" by Anita Brookner or "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. Some books, of course, are AC/DC. The Bible, for instance, is a dangerous text for those prone to the ailment because it can be so overstimulating and so utterly tedious. Ditto, the work of Samuel Beckett.

Readers with divided selves may experience both syndromes at the same time, generating a dangerously schizoid ego split. This is especially apt to occur while reading Russian novels, due to the fact that most of the characters are in the same painful state.


The Epistemological Gambit: Research shows that an excessive concern with one's insignificance in the cosmos often leads to a preoccupation with the subject of his or her own ignorance, which then results in an attempt to master one particular field. The reader chooses a category (sometimes, one darkly suspects, at random) and, in an attempt to master it, loses interest in acquiring any new books except those in his or her field.

The Call of the Gutter Syndrome: (A variation of the above.) Unfortunately, the category chosen is often not one that would enhance one's self-esteem. This would explain the proliferation of self-help books: most are purchased not by readers who want to help themselves but by those who are studying the field of self-help (or so they tell themselves). Eventually, they become addicted. Unable to stop, they start to hate themselves for absorbing such trash. Other likely candidates: pornography, trashy show biz bios, cookbooks, and treatises on semiotics.

Insufficient Stimulus Barrier: Also sometimes known as Tidal Empathy. Everything you read moves you almost to tears. You keep closing the book, rubbing your forehead.

Grand Conceptual Tidal Empathy: It's not what you read but that you are reading at all that moves you. You find yourself overwhelmed by the idea that some author set his or her deepest, most secret thoughts on paper, and there you are, reading it! Come to think of it, you can't believe that there even are such things as books, that humans in the midst of love, war and the acquisition of filthy lucre pause to create things of beauty. The whole idea of art fills and overwhelms you. Your heart is flooded with gladness. You are utterly incapable of reading.