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The Reading Spectrum – Is there a right way to read?

Ahead of World Book Day, a new publication from Queen Mary University of London’s modern literature expert Professor Matthew Rubery aims to change everything we think we know about reading.

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In this first history of neurodivergent reading, Prof Rubery explores how certain cognitive conditions can affect people’s understanding of the written word – and, in turn, their experience of the wider world.

‘Reader’s Block: A History of Reading Differences’ aims to transform our view of reading and tackle the shame that people who read differently often feel throughout their lives, from children struggling with literacy at school to adults who prefer audiobooks or podcasts being told it’s not ‘real’ reading.

“Schools are much better at recognising neurodiversity than they used to be – but if you talk to someone who grew up with dyslexia decades ago, it will all be about that turning point: One day they're friends with everyone on the playground and then, almost overnight because of reading lessons gone wrong, they're a social outcast,” Prof Rubery said. “A lot of parents of dyslexic children really emphasise that no-one wants to be seen as stupid; they would rather be considered troublemakers, anything but that.”

Prof Rubery’s book reveals how the history of reading has so far left out the stories of neurodivergent people, with reading abilities dictated by everything from dyslexia to dementia and hyperlexia to hallucinations. For fluent readers whose brains and bodies work in harmony to make sense of written text, the book is a thought-provoking journey of ‘reader’s block’ to understand how others confront the page with their brains and bodies in tension or conflict, creating different strategies to finish the task when the traditional approach of ‘eyes scrolling across the page’ doesn’t work.

Prof Rubery commented: “One of the things we can gain by looking at other reading styles is that ‘neurotypical’ readers will suddenly reflect on aspects they haven’t paid attention to before. I learned from talking to people over the last few years that most don't necessarily think of their own reading as that ‘normal’ and, once I start talking about certain trends, they often suddenly reveal that they have their own quirk.”

According to Prof Rubery, reading is not a single activity and there are multiple ways of doing it, despite how easily we use the term. The phrase ‘reader’s block’ applies not only to neurodivergent readers, but also to people’s reluctance to recognise different forms of reading, which this book aims to challenge.

Prof Rubery explained: “As soon as we define reading, we run into expectations, so this book resists the temptation to replace one definition of reading with another. More than a history of people who can’t read, it’s a history of people who read differently. The typical reader should leave this book knowing that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ reader.

“Making people with disabilities part of the conversation can transform how wider society thinks about a topic, and everyone stands to benefit from a more inclusive definition of reading – but expanding the term ‘reading’ to cover unusual ways of doing it is not merely a matter of social justice. Although one motive for writing this book was the sense that my own peculiar reading habits set me apart from other people, conversations have left me with the impression that almost no-one seems to think that their reading is entirely normal. Anyone who feels this way should take comfort from knowing that you are not alone.”

‘Reader’s Block: A History of Reading Differences’ is published by Stanford University Press, and is available to buy directly from Apple iBooks, Amazon, Blackwell’s, Google Play, and WHSmith.

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