[from The New York Times, quite a while ago, here reprinted without
Fear of Readingby 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
- I. READING INTERRUPTUS
[Inability to read at normal tempo for 20 minutes or more]
- Magnification: Single words or sentences fill the mind.
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
Instant Aphasia: Reading the same sentence over and over
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
to the first page or, in extreme cases, occur immediately upon reading the
- a) The Pinocchio Complex: Believing that everything you
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
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
used; an onslaught of shivers every time you touch the paper; thinking the
book smells funny.
- II. BAD TRIPS
[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
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.
- III. METAPHYSICAL DILEMMAS
- 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
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
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.