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My Reading Compulsion

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Hello. My name is Squibstress, and I’m a compulsive reader.

My daily consumption includes newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, plus my local, and often a few pieces from the Guardian), magazine/e-zine articles (the Economist, the AtlanticVoxSlate, the New Yorker), plus various healthcare-related publications (although that’s slowed down since my semi-retirement from health and medical writing), and usually a few articles or blog posts on writing and editing, plus anything else that catches my eye. I average one or two books per week (mostly fiction with some non-fiction thrown in for good measure).

None of this should be construed as a boast; it truly is a compulsion that I have trouble controlling—fortunately, it’s a relatively harmless one, although my recall for things that I have read is deplorable, and I have little in the way of a social life.

When I was a small child, I apparently developed the annoying habit of reading aloud every street sign or product label that passed my way, presumably to show off that I could. To this day, I can’t help but read anything within eyeshot. Mr. Squib and the Squiblets frequently catch me reading condiment labels at the table rather than participating in conversation, and don’t get me started on the irresistable attraction of restaurant menus and—swoon! —wine lists. I am a very boring dinner companion. I have difficulty enjoying a television program or movie without captioning, although there’s nothing wrong with my hearing, and I often fall asleep during shows without it. I far prefer reading the transcript of a podcast or video to listening or watching.

I don’t know if I would have been considered hyperlexic, had it been a better-known phenomenon when I was a child, nor if my current compulsion rises to the level of pathology, but, golly, do I spend a lot of time reading when I should be doing something else (writing, working, cleaning the house, interacting with other humans).

Interestingly (to me, anyway), hyperlexia is associated with autism, and I am the parent of an Autistic person. (Who loathes reading. Go figure.) Like many biological relatives of clinically identified Autistics*, I suspect I fit into what is now referred to by some researchers as the “broad autism phenotype”—individuals who share some characteristics with Autistics but in whom those characteristics don’t rise to a clincally significant (i.e., disabling) level. Like some Autistics, I find most social situations uncomfortable; I have sensory issues and stims; I enjoy intense interests; I’m fond of routine; I’m a little ball of generalized anxiety; I’m an ADHD poster child. I am fortunate that these things, which can be disabling for some people, have caused me only minor problems in life, and I have family and friends that love me alternately in spite of and because of my many quirks. And my son and I have a particularly deep connection, thanks, in part, to our shared characteristics.

Engaging with the written word is how I feel the most connected to my fellow humans. In general, I would far rather exhange lengthy emails or letters than talk in person or on the telephone or — Merlin forfend! — via Zoom (shudder). I also avoid texting except for the briefest of urgent exchanges because, to me, it’s the worst of both worlds: it combines the uncomfortable immediacy of spoken language with the requirement to type reasonably accurately on an infernally tiny keyboard.

Reading (and listening to music, which I also adore) allows one to interact with others’ ideas, thoughts, and emotions without a social filter. When I read, I feel as if I’m looking directly into the writer’s heart and brain; there is no body language or facial expression to parse or blur meaning. I don’t have to waste time sorting through other, possibly contradictory, social cues or worry about how my own behavior affects the other’s expression of those ideas and emotions.

All of this is not to say that I don’t love my fellow humans—I do, with notable exceptions. I just don’t want to talk to you.

Mwah! 😘

*I use identity-first rather than person-first language because that’s what most of the Autistics I know prefer. Whenever I know the preference of the person or people with whom I’m interacting, I try to use their preferred terminology.