I can read again.
Sometime this past December, something in my brain seemed to click. I can’t explain it, I’d done nothing differently. Just a few weeks earlier, reading had been as hard as usual for me ever since that virus damaged my brain five years ago. But this one day, desperate for entertainment that wasn’t the news/Instagram/YouTube ad nauseam, I opened the Kindle app on my phone.
I might not be able to stay there long, but anything would be better than my worn-down Internet trails. And for the first time in almost exactly five years, the dizziness and nausea just… didn’t come. It felt a bit odd, sure, but not directly unpleasant. I read for half an hour or so, then reluctantly closed the app, not wanting to push my luck. My pause was short-lived, though — I couldn’t keep myself away. It felt like breathing again. It felt like coming home, after half a decade away.
You see, reading and writing is something I’ve always done. I actually can’t remember not knowing how to read. One of my earliest memories is sitting on a pink bean bag, listening to Disney stories on a walkman and reading the accompanying book, while the house I grew up in was built up around me. I could sit there for hours, lost in that first, innocent infatuation with words.
In school I was allowed to learn the fancy cursive style of writing instead of the simplified one, as I already technically knew how to write. I was so bored in those lessons. I spent a lot of time tracing the alphabet posters in my mind, over and over again, probably sowing the seed for my lifelong dalliance with calligraphy.
One time I was taken to a different city for an eye exam (my eyes were always complaining), and they gave me some eye drops that made my vision blurry for hours. And how I wept — not because of the exam, but because I’d just gotten a new horse magazine for the trip, and now I couldn’t read it. Talk about foreshadowing.
For a long time the Nancy Drew series was The One, dad vaguely protesting that there was little point in buying them when I just finished them in less than a day. So I re-read them, again and again, and got a library card, and also my parents kept allowing me books because they were kind and we could afford it. At eleven, dad tossed me the just-released book about a certain school of witchcraft and wizardry. My deep scepticism of anything he, an adult man, liked, quickly vanished, because this was a story about magic. And so I discovered the fantasy section in the local library, and didn’t emerge until I moved one floor up to the music section a handful of years later.
In high school, a friend and I would hang out just there while waiting for theatre group to begin. We ate cake with single-use utensils before trailing our thoroughly washed hands along the spines, savouring just being near them.
Then, at sixteen, I started sneaking off to dad’s computer in the basement, writing a fantasy novel of my own. I handed off chapters to my middle sister as I went, and she received them with the kind of enthusiasm only a younger sister can provide, the perfect co-conspirator.
After a while I showed a chapter to an adult non-fiction writer I knew, hoping for some feedback. And feedback I got — except the only thing that stuck with me was his focus on how it wasn’t particularly original. He was absolutely right, but also, that wasn’t the kind of comment teenage Maria needed.
Nursing my first literary broken heart, I stopped writing fiction for years. I turned instead to writing music, where I could sneak my words into choral arrangements and melodies. Not everyone listens to lyrics, after all (I’ll freely admit how that knowledge stings). Still, although both teachers and students had comments on the music, few dared to have opinions on the lyrics, if they cared at all. My words were safe.
So I stuck with music, but kept reading, book after book after book. True to my childhood idol Belle from Beauty and the Beast, when I was in a book, nothing could touch me, nobody could reach me. It was the safest embrace I knew. And then I got sick. Forced to rest, alone, with no answers as to why, my mind went back to the world I’d started creating as a teenager. If I had to be stuck in my own head, I would make it a proper escape, with an endless world to roam. I changed it ruthlessly, keeping only the bones, the feeling of it. And, quietly, it grew.
There was also this blog, which some of you might remember from back when it was an educational fashion blog and I stumbled around in towering platform heels to take outfit photos. I loved writing it, I truly did — but the depths of my soft and earnest heart will always belong to fiction.
Almost a decade later, after the fantasy world had been living solely in my mind and my notes, I started writing it down for real. At the time I had a close-knit friend group who kept meeting at a café, working and writing and talking and eating together in a delightful circle of outgoing, introverted bliss. I could focus so well there, despite my illness, and the company was nerdy enough for imagination to flourish.
After a while I started sharing the chapters as I wrote them, like platonic love letters sent to Kindles late at night. This quickly turned out to be an absolutely horrible idea, as it put so much pressure on a freakin’ first draft. But it also boosted my confidence, and turned the solitary act of writing into something shared, which was hard to let go of. I’d just started a habit of writing a thousand words a day, when I got a cold. The cold turned into a virus on my balance nerve, which turned into five long, half-lived years of no reading, no writing. It was loneliness in a way I’d never experienced before.
Until now. We are reunited at last, my words and I.
I’m holding my breath, though. Part of me is certain this must be too good to be true. I’ve hesitated sharing the good news, afraid people will either be harsh if my newfound skills fade again, or that they’ll dismiss the grief-numbed wasteland of my last five years. It makes me want to add addendums and hasty reservations, like that I still can’t read physical paper books for very long. And book writing, book editing, still isn’t a thing. But the truth is in the pudding, or my secret account in not one, but two book tracking apps: since mid-December, I’ve read fourteen books.
It takes time to learn how to trust again. I want to, I really do, I want to properly enjoy the reading, because oh, how I have missed it. Audio books are great, and certainly better than nothing, but… it’s not the same.
I’ve missed repeatedly reading particularly good sentences, mulling them over in my mind and on my tongue, like slowly melting chocolate. I’ve missed letting my own mind create the voices, the inflictions and the hidden meanings, instead of having a voice actor tell me how to feel, how the characters feel. I’ve missed the small books, the niche books, the old books and the new, the outsider ones that never get recorded in the first place.
I’ve missed making notes and highlighting what moves me the most. I’ve missed knowing how a word is spelled, how to trace it with ink, not just learning how it’s pronounced. I’ve missed poetry, which for me requires a slow and careful seduction that audio versions simply can’t give me. And yes, on a more practical note, my bank account has missed how digital books are often a fraction of the price of an audio book, even if that’s not a particularly romantic confession.
Most of all I’ve missed how, in reading a book with my own eyes, the world falls away. There’s nothing between me and the words, between me and the worlds.
Right now we’re still mostly meeting in secret. It feels frantic, like I can’t put the words down or I’ll somehow lose them again. When you’ve been so desperate for something for so long, it’s hard to believe that it won’t just disappear again. There’s really no way to know.
For now, though, I can read again. I can read again. The words and I are finally back together, and we have never been happier.