On Not Being Able to Read by Myna Trustram

My aim in this experimental essay is to open an imaginative and a cognitive space within which I might explore my bizarre and troubling experience of not being able to read. I open a book, let’s say Five Ways of Being a Painting1 that I suspect will reveal to me things I want to know, and I am unable to go beyond a few paragraphs. It is not due to lack of time or dyslexia. When I describe this to friends, a few recognise it but most do not. I know it is about the emotional world that I enter when I read. The essay does not offer a coherent narrative because so far my mind does not think in that way about this topic; it is a collection of fragments from an unwritten work.

This book, having been written, has become part of the given and must now be overcome in the minds of its readers and its author. Having been written, it is static and no longer becoming anything other than itself.

This opening paragraph of Thomas Ogden’s The Primitive Edge of Experience, offers some clues to the difficulty of reading. He goes on,
The potential value of this book lies in the degree to which it creates a possibility for the given (of which it is now a part) to be overcome through interpretation by the reader in a new and more generative way.2

The book has been made, it has become itself. The reader too needs to be made, to become herself (‘herself’ being an on-going, not a finished state). To overcome the book, I need to overcome the earlier, half-forms of myself. Acts of reading, and writing, help me do this but reading does not yet become me.

I went to the house but did not enter.3
I opened the book but did not enter.
I did not read the book for fear I would be knocked off balance because when I read I am washed over by another. A book is a worrying embodiment of what I don’t know, a vast resource which I fear will tell me more than I want to know or what I do not understand; it is a reminder of the impossibility of knowing enough.

When you read you take something inside, the content and the author. Melanie Klein writes, J. Strachey (1930) has shown that reading has the unconscious significance of taking knowledge out of the mother’s body and that the fear of robbing her is an important factor for inhibitions in reading.4

I know that reading threatens to open up a vast unknown area for me that is somehow greatly threatening; I don’t know if I am fearful for the effect of my reading on my mother. She adds that, it is essential for a favourable development of the desire for knowledge that the mother’s body should be felt to be well and unharmed.5

I was always anxious about my mother; I seemed to have an inordinately large role to play in her happiness.

Despite an aversion to long novels, I have read Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.6<\sub>

The roar of an opened book might make me die but could also help me to hear the squirrel’s heart beat yet, for the most part, I settle for the silence of a closed book.

My first teacher was Miss Quin but they soon said I had to move to Miss Vanderkist’s class which had small brown tables and chairs in a large space with white brick painted walls. I can no longer remember Miss Quin’s. A few times I went there, to Miss Quin’s, at the beginning of the day even though I knew I wasn’t meant to. They weren’t severe, but they didn’t understand the importance of my staying a little longer with Miss Quin; they couldn’t wait for me and in the end I gave up.

When I was an adult my mother told me that I was slow in learning to read and they were concerned about this. She might have said worried.

I appear to be wedded to a sense of inability.

I shall not first give an historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any.7

This is Winnicott’s description of how he wrote his paper about primitive emotional development. Perhaps this is as good a method as any for reading: to gather this and that, here and there; to wander around, never lingering when meaning slips away. A primitive relationship with reading.

I am reading Seamus Heaney’s poem, North in which he suggests the poet lies down in the word-hoard of past and current centuries, and ‘trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / your hands have known.’ 8 This is it, to know sufficiently and trust the feel of my life so that I might read of others’ lives without falling away from myself.

When I read something I like, as I am now, R.F. Langley’s Journals9, it is as though my interest has depleted it. It is no longer there waiting for a reader; it is no longer unfound, unthought, unknown. I infect it with something of myself: an inadequate perception, an excessive need. He mustn’t know that I have read it, that I’m so taken by it, that I have taken from it something of him, his purity, he won’t like it.

Reading is relational, it requires the same skills as any other relationship. If one has only partially learned to make satisfying relationships, it is possible that the ability to read will be compromised.

I am not so much thinking and writing about reading, but thinking and writing about reading through reading. Whilst reading. I would like my experience of reading to be thickened through this process, but not thicketed! That’s the risk, that too much comprehension destroys the mystery and paradox.

I take from the library shelf Deborah Britzman’s, Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Towards a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. She writes about ‘the quest to study not just the intolerable but also what I cannot tolerate knowing’.10 But what if I can’t tolerate knowing anything? What if knowledge, the actual knowing of something (as opposed to experiencing something or knowing how to clean my teeth) like a fact about ancient Rome or that Freud said that dreams are completely egotistical, what if knowing things like that is intolerable because they move me into a state of knowing that sets me apart from others?

Reading is about thinking, free-associating and imagining, all at the same time; when all goes well, it’s about how you might use the facts you discover to release imagination.

When I look at Matisse, ‘The Inattentive Reader’ (1919) and then at ‘The Silence Living in Houses’ (1947) I sense something of the loneliness of reading. In the first painting a lone woman sits staring away from the book that is open in front of her, text in the book is indicated with dense lines. In the other, two people (perhaps a mother and a child) look together at an open book on a table, the pages are blank.

‘The Silence Living in Houses’ is on the cover of Mary Jacobus’s book, Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading.11 I want to be the child in Matisse’s painting looking at a book with another person, recovering something through looking at emptiness. I don’t seem to know about looking at a book with another, only the lonely deciphering in a classroom. I can call upon others to help me with the writing of this essay, but I can’t get too close to Jacobus because she might take me into what she calls ‘an inhabited solitude’,12 a temporary form of madness.13 Or so it seems.

I am always following. My siblings have all gone before me as has any book that I open; it has passed through the mind of the writer. How can I absorb it into my mind without feeling that I have given up, lost something of myself?

Learning to read is not best approached as a cognitive task. Trying harder, trying to concentrate, trying to understand doesn’t help. It’s something about being free to move around within myself. Marion Milner found that being absent-minded was necessary for her to paint.14 These are field notes from inside a reading room. The room needs to be big and to hold more than me and a book.

The Feldenkrais15 teacher has a warm voice and repeatedly says, that’s enough, pause, let it go, do as little as possible. That is also good advice for a reader.

I found that to draw the line of one object with fully felt awareness of the line of a neighbouring one and of the patterns of space that they mutually created between them, seemed as potent an act as laying a wire across the terminals of a battery; and the resulting flash seemed to light a new world of possibilities.16

In her book, On Not Being Able to Paint, Milner describes how she taught herself to paint. Through close processual observation she records the pleasures of artistry, of living itself and she records its terrors. To open a book with fully felt awareness of its power to disrupt my habitual sense of myself and the world, requires a willingness to find pleasure and terror. She goes on to describe how she would rush to turn a scribble into something recognisable: ‘It seemed almost as if, at these moments, one could not bear the chaos and uncertainty about what was emerging long enough.’17 When reading, chaos and uncertainty similarly abound.

In an earlier book, A Life of One’s Own, she described her search for the kinds of experience that made her happy.
I wanted to keep rigidly within the bounds of my own actual observation, to try as far as possible to forget everything I had read, everything I had been told, and to assume nothing that did not emerge out of my own direct experience.18

Hurrah for the privileging of experience over theory. It would be comforting to believe that I am withholding from reading until I have a greater sense of self.

Strangely enough, I find Marion Milner’s books, the books on which this essay is premised, as difficult to read as any of the others I’ve quoted, harder in fact. It is something to do with their promise, the hunch that they could really help me to change if I only took them in. A friend recommended A Life of One’s Own forty years ago when I was in my twenties. Still much of it goes unread.

Library staff take my readerly inclinations more seriously than I do. They find and lend me books I never read.

Patricia Lockwood’s book reviews spin around the emotional as well as the intellectual impact of a book: The first time I read her [Lucia Berlin’s] stories I felt inexplicably lonely, and then realised it was because I wanted to have already read them a dozen times. I wished to get to the point where we were companions, where I could open the book at any page and pick up a conversation that was already ongoing.19

So this is what you might let yourself in for if you read! It sounds lovely, but could I tolerate such a companion?

‘whichever page you open there you are’.20

In The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf says, The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.21

But what if your instinct on opening a book is to close it?

A reader, like an analysand, dares to experience the disturbing feeling of not knowing each time he begins reading a new piece of writing. We regularly create the soothing illusion for ourselves that we have nothing to lose from the experience of reading, and that we can only gain from it.22

The idealisation of reading! It is rare to suggest that it is anything other than a longed for, glorious, unambiguous pastime. That one might need protection from the world of another’s thinking and imagination!

It is absurd to claim that I cannot read, clearly I can, and Milner could paint. We are writing about an inability to read or paint well enough to allow the activity to enhance ourselves as much as we suspect it might. A good enough parent is one who creates an environment that gives an infant sufficient nourishment and frustration in order to seek out satisfaction elsewhere. A good enough painter or reader might be one that is able to leave hold of what is known and risk being on the edge of madness.23

In any book worth reading, there is more than you can possibly take in. To read it you have to be able to leave things alone, to give up. When doing anything – looking at damson blossom, humming a tune, loving another – I can only really skim over its surface. How might I do justice to anything?

To describe my acts of reading as ‘unachieved’ lends them a kind of melancholic dignity. I found that word – unachieved – whilst reading R.F. Langley’s poem ‘The Upshot’: ‘We leave unachieved in the / summer dusk.’24 It reminded me of Winnicott’s description of emptiness as ‘nothing happening when something might profitably have happened’.25 Reading invokes chains of indebtedness. In fact, Langley took the sentence from Proust and gives no hint in the poem that it is not of his own making, which suggests that he is at ease in a world of writers learning and taking from each other.26 Writing also invokes chains of indebtedness which are all the more powerful when not acknowledged. There is more than enough of his own poetics and insight in the poem for Langley to get away with unacknowledged aesthetic and intellectual debt. Most likely I am concerned with referencing sources because of my academic training but also because I live in reference to my older siblings. I claimed little as my own because it all seemed to have been done before. I am a derivative!

Britzman writes of two irresolvable conflicts animated and transferred onto the scene of reading: encountering what is illegible yet impressive in psychical reality and putting these impressions into language to speak and write about what is ambiguous and unknown in external reality.27

And yet somehow we do read, we persist in trying to decipher what is illegible within ourselves and what is illegible within text.

Reading is an abstract occupation that removes me from my body and senses. I no longer touch another, smell jasmine, spread apricot jam. Whilst reading, I do such things at one remove.

Reading is tantalising, one is on a cusp. Winnicott says that ‘perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a human baby’ is ‘when the facilitating environment has not been deficient but tantalizing’.28 Healing can be as hard as trauma. I live in unrealised potential. I opened the book but did not read it.

Any recovery involves the loss of the former state which one might have been attached to, which was at least familiar. This could mean that learning or knowing is a harder state to be in than not knowing or not-being-able. Knowing brings a broader landscape and so more to fear (like breakdown).

In his film, Second-hand Reading (2013),29 William Kentridge makes pages from Cassells Cyclopedia of Mecanics On Historical Principles flip across the screen. Drawings of trees, birds, revolutionary figures and coloured geometric forms move over the pages along with phrases and words: ‘Whilst finding my place in the chapter’, ‘Meeting the page halfway’, ‘The shove of the word’. Cartoon-like, Kentridge himself walks steadfastly through this politicised landscape of words, meanings and objects. A sound track by Neo Muyanga lifts the whole assemblage into an elegy for human knowledge, destruction and love.

I am exhilarated by the music and the foreign political and natural landscape that it transports me into, and I am irritated by the visual presence of the male author of the work, striding deep in thought through his creation. He has put himself right inside the Cyclopedia and the landscape. There is a gulf between my experience of being in a book whilst I read it, and Kentridge’s apparent ease with himself as reader and maker. I hover on the edges whilst he makes tracks right through it. Reading is an act of taking in the given but also of making in one’s mind something of what one finds. It is this that I back away from and gaze on enviously whilst others appear to know how to do it.

When reading you enter a world that is not essential to life.

You wastefully leave lights on in your home or hotel room when you aren’t there, not to prove that you exist, but because the margins of surplus itself feels like life, feels in some curious way like being alive. 30 (Italics in the original.)

Reading a book is akin to leaving lights on: they both take place within the margins of surplus. Straying into a book means a diversion away from the task of surviving. You don’t need to read a book in order to prove that you exist You read it for some other reason, perhaps in order to feel alive or in order to make life worth living.

There was no margin of surplus in our family except when we were on holiday. The best in my memory were on St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly. There was no surplus (certainly no excess) of food, time, comfort, warmth, love. Neither was there a lack. But there was something about the calculatedness of it all that spoiled it. James Wood again, Life, then, will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is always more than we need: more things, more impressions, more memories, more habits, more words, more happiness, more unhappiness.31

There were books in our house but you have to learn how to use the surplus. You have to learn to move into the symbolic realm, to take your eye off reality.

Reading offers you words to fit a feeling. ‘Until this moment [of reading], one was comparatively inarticulate; until this moment, one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.’ 32 When Alice Oswald describes ‘the plane-crash mess’33 of a dead swan’s wings, I am transported back to the swans alive with cygnets on the river Avon that flowed past my childhood house. The fearsome beating of their wings on the water as they lumbered up into the air, then the imperceptible shift into eloquence high above the meadows.

There was no surplus of swans on the river, just the one pair.

You have to remain as close to your instinctual ways as possible; without memory or desire, in the present moment of reading, to forget the task and to be in the deciphering of the words. The hard thing is to launch oneself into the dark waters of a book, in a fearsome headlong abandon but also in a holding back; a cautionary respect for defences allows one to be a good enough reader.

Winnicott write that emptiness is the basis of all learning, it is ‘a prerequisite for eagerness to gather in.’34 The pain of not reading is when one is tantalisingly close to something happening but it doesn’t. I open the book but do not read it.

I am sitting on the dining room floor near the big brown radio, my mother is there but she isn’t present.
Winnicott identifies a phenomenon whereby a baby tries to relieve emptiness by mothering herself with intellect.35 My intellect is a demanding, false kind of a mother. I live in a tantalising state of affairs where intellect comforts and frustrates. I am able to read and unable to read. I am clever and not clever.

Deborah Britzman writes about slow readers being too loyal, too compliant, with the text. Following Jacobus and Klein, she describes,
the painful experience of holding oneself back from reading, of, say, not being able to let go of the original object and allow interpretation to enliven and even change its meaning.36

A too literal approach to a text, whether it’s Janet and John or The Very Thought of Education, is the downfall of the reader. I will continue with the slow task of letting go, allowing an enlivening of myself and my relations with others through the books they have written and the objects symbolised in their books.

All this applies equally to the writing of this essay: writing requires a letting go, a giving up of compliance, in order to enliven the text whether it is being read or written.

I want now to go and find Klein on the bookshelf for a quote about enlivening, but I’ll resist the urge and instead see myself in the rows of desks in Amesbury C of E Junior Aided Mixed School and in an attic study full of books in a Stockport suburb. And trust that insight gained through close engagement with another leads to change. How that change comes about is as imperceptible as how a plane-crash mess of wings returns me to a river.

In her artist book, Orlando Sylvia Waltering has removed the text altogether from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando but left a reader’s marginalia.37 As I said earlier, Matisse’s painting ‘The Silence Living in Houses’ (Le Silence habité des maisons) (1947) shows two figures with an open book which also has blank pages.

I take almost randomly Mark Cocker’s, Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet off my shelf and imagine finding only empty pages. Instead of reading his account of watching birds over the course of a year, I wonder what my version would be. In fact, I have done a similar thing: a few years ago, I described in a diary flowers that I picked – a different one each day – for a year.

I look up swan in the index, there are five entries. I fall down into this one: a swan […] lumbered through the ice-smeared water, progressing one painful lunge at a time so that the glass-like sheet splintered with each new effort. It was four in the afternoon. There were sixteen hours of darkness ahead. It was minus ten.38

This is the way to read a book: with a mind that selects, that doesn’t need to stick rigidly to what is offered, and notices what has gone before.

I open John Ashbery’s Other Traditions to a chapter about John Clare.39 I am soon inside his prose and deep knowledge of Clare, and I am with Clare in the countryside, ecstatic and confined. If that is enough, then I can read. I cannot repeat to another or remember what I’ve read but I can read and be satisfied enough.

A good book that conveys something of the complexity of truth opens, paradoxically, a space, which some might experience as an abyss, of not-knowing. I can choose to remain on the edge or climb down from illusion into a maelstrom of amazement, confusion, dependence, love and hatred. Reading is a relational activity that brings with it the difficulties of being with another, in fantasy or reality. It presses the self into a small space on a dense page of symbols that yields exquisite moments of recognition and moments of despair.


1 Five Ways of Being a Painting and other essays. Foreward by Rosaline Porter (2017), London: Notting Hill Editions

2 Thomas Ogden (1992), The Primitive Edge of Experience, London: Karnac, p.1

3 This sentence is from Maurice Blanchot (1981) [1973], The Madness of the Day, New York: Station Hill Press, p.10. It is also the title of an opera by Heiner Goebbels: https://www.heinergoebbels.com/en/archive/works/complete/view/211/info

4 Melanie Klein (1975), ‘The Theory of Intellectual Inhibition’ in Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945, London: Hogarth Press, p.241

5 Ibid.

6 George Eliot (1965) [1871-2], Middlemarch, Harmonsdworth: Penguin, p.226

7 D.W. Winnicott (1958), ‘Primitive Emotional Development’ in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. Collected Papers, London: Karnac, 145 – 156, p.145

8 Seamus Heaney (1975) North, London: Faber, p.20

9 R.F. Langley (2006) Journals, Exeter: Shearsman

10 Deborah Britzman (1998) Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Towards a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning, Sate University of New York, p.49

11 Mary Jacobus (1999), Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading, Oxford University Press

12 Ibid p.5

13 Ibid p.13

14 Marion Milner (1950), On Not Being Able to Paint, London: Heinemann, p.164

15 http://www.feldenkrais.co.uk/

16 On Not Being Able to Paint, p.12

17 Ibid p.76

18 Marion Milner (1952), A Life of One’s Own, Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.202

19 Patricia Lockwood, ‘Sex on the Roof’, London Review of Books, 6 December 2018, pp 3-8, p.3

20 William Kentridge Thick Time at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 21 September 2018 – 3 March 2019.One of the works is called ‘Second-Hand Reading’ (2013). With a sound track by Neo Muyanga

21 Virginia Woolf (1932) The Common Reader. Second Series, London: Hogarth Press, p.258

22 Thomas Ogden (1989) The Primitive Edge of Experience, London: Karnac, p.2

23 Jackie Stacey (2018) has also written about a good-enough reader: ‘On Being a Good-Enough Reader of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts’, Angelaki, 23:1, 204-208

24 R.F. Langley (2015), ‘The Upshot’ in Complete Poems, Manchester: Carcanet

25 D.W. Winnicott (1986) ‘Fear of Breakdown’ in Gregorio Kohon (ed.) The British School of Psychoanalysis. The Independent Tradition, London: Free Association Books, p.180

26 Complete Poems p.159. This is revealed in notes by Jeremy Noel-Tod

27 Deborah Britzman (2009) The Very Thought of Education, State University of New York, p.23

28 ‘Fear of Breakdown’, p.176

29 ‘Thick Time’

30 James Wood is discussing significantly insignificant detail in novel writing in his (2008), How Fiction Works, London: Cape, p.69

31 How Fiction Works, p.68

32 Ibid, p.147

33 ‘Swan’ in Alice Oswald (2016), Falling Awake, London: Cape, p.2

34 ‘Fear of Breakdown’ p.181

35 Jan Abram (1996) The Language of Winnicott, London: Karnac, p.305.

36 The Very Thought p.49

37 Sylvia Waltering (2015) Orlando, Battenburg Press

38 Mark Cocker (2014) Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, London: Cape, p.20

39 John Ashbery (2000) Other Traditions, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press