Well Read

Russ Fugal
6 min readMay 17, 2019

first published in The Canticle (University of Utah, 2019)

Aeneas, grasping his shield and long spear …

I am listening to the Iliad, looking straight ahead, because ever since I became a writer I’ve been trying to become well-read. But reading has never been an easy pastime for me. Highway hypnosis — “may in large measure result from an understimulating traffic and road environment and produce a suboptimal activational state in which relevant cues from the environment are ignored” [1] — have you experienced it? I often do, both on the road and the page. Reading has never been an easy pastime for me. Some say that audiobooks don’t count, that you haven’t really read the book if you just listened to the audiobook. Spoken words often are easier to engage with, but still I find my thoughts drifting. Hands at ten and two — refocus.

Aeneas fell to his knees, and pressed the ground with one great hand, while darkness shrouded his sight. …


Maybe I would have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. That’s an odd name — I don’t know if I can speak to this or not because I’ve never been diagnosed — because in my experience there is no deficit. Although, when involved in conversation with a passenger I always seem to miss exits. Then again, once I did nearly miss a flight because I didn’t take the exit to I-80 — wound up in Bountiful — and there was no one else in the car then. This is more of a parenthetical shift in focus than a lapse of attention. Maybe this is another one of the myths that I’ve begun to tell myself, like that maybe I am dyslexic — reading has never been an easy pastime for me.

Short picture books were easy. Growing up, the bottom 3–4 feet of our family-room bookcase was shoved full of them. I read each of them at least twice; some of them dozens of times. I don’t remember, as a child, thinking that reading is hard. I even read an entire encyclopedia — The ABCs of Nature. Hardcover, 3 pounds, 336 pages. I couldn’t have been older than nine.

Some books produced an optimal activational state, and I could read them for hours. Others — I can’t count the number of books I never finished, or worse, finished without remembering most of what I read. In 2001 I fell in love with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, so I dutifully looked at every single word on every page in all three of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books at the appropriate pace. I got from point A to point B, but I don’t remember much of what came between. Highway hypnosis. The top 2 feet of the family-room bookcase was full of books just like those — Orson Scott Card, James Howe, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Beverly Cleary, Franklin W. Dixon, and many more. I would often stretch up and pull one off the shelf. I don’t know if I ever finished a single one, and not for lack of interest. In retrospect, they intimidated me, demanding too much focus on one form in a multimodal world. My own thoughts were enough to derail my efforts, not to mention the sounds of a house full of seven children, the texture and construction of the rug, even the lure of counting how many pages were read and the calculated percentage of completion.

My oldest daughter demanded literacy. I had a plan to cultivate her numerical literacy, to raise a toddler with precocious mathematical abilities. She had other plans. She demanded to be read stories. Short picture books were easy. I always finished them, and she’d always ask for more. I enjoyed reading to her, but I had my limits — I had new plans to hatch, and two hours of story-time every day was not sustainable.

When she was three I discovered the magic of audiobooks. Her first audiobook was Alice in Wonderland. I’d never read it, but she’d finish it once a day, every day, and she loved it. She has been insatiable. It doesn’t stop: Annie Barrows, Nick Bruel, Beverly Cleary, Debbie Dadey, Roald Dahl, Dan Gutman, Shannon Hale, Victoria Kann, Jeff Kinney, Ann M. Martin, Daisy Meadows, Mary Pope Osborne, Barbara Park, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Geronimo Stilton, and many more — hundreds of books before she had even turned six. She learned to read early on, so nearly all of them weren’t audiobooks. I couldn’t have read that many books to her myself.

I look up to her. Reading has never been an easy pastime for me, like it is for her. Maybe I would have been diagnosed with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder if I hadn’t been homeschooled, or maybe I would have just struggled, feeling broken, stupid. I’m not compelled to compare myself to my daughter the way I’ve compared myself to my peers. I hated writing in primary school. In secondary school I was expected to appreciate an anthology of American Literature. I didn’t feel like I understood any of it, and I couldn’t read it. In retrospect, I’m glad I was homeschooled — not because I was able to avoid reading and writing and rhetoric, but that I could come to it, eventually, on my own terms — even if the support of a diagnosis could have changed me. As a child I was able to excel in physics, science, and math. I felt complete.

My second child, my son is much more like me. Invested heavily in weaning my daughter of story-time, I tracked her development closely. I know the precise moment she became a reader, and what the catalytic practice was. I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t assume my son would learn in the same way. When he initially struggled with reading I began to suspect that he is dyslexic. He could easily name all the letters at four years old, still at five he often confused the letters b and d, or slowly recited the letters of a printed word out of order even while he dragged his finger across from left to right. And talk about focus — it took him more than 60 seconds to recite all the letters of a five-letter word, while he dragged his finger across from left to right. But chewing gum helped. That’s when I began researching dyslexia. With kindergarten enrollment just months away, desperate that he not struggle in school, I put him on a six month waiting list for diagnostic testing. Fortunately, the literacy I learned from my daughter then also affected him. He was a fluent reader before his first visit to the clinic. “He’s a great reader, he’s not dyslexic. But you might want to look into a gifted program…”

I’ve come to appreciate the neurodiversity of a population with varied abilities. The global spacing of minicolumns in a dyslexic mind allows for amazing cognitive ability, even if focus isn’t one of them. My little brother is dyslexic and he is more well-read than me. My son and I can read well, ergo we’re not dyslexic? I’m not convinced. I would like to think that dyslexia is more than struggle, that it is a diagnosis of power, and that my son and I share in these superpowers, even if only slightly, and even if it did initially cause anxiety about whether or not he would enjoy reading or hate school. I have learned so much about myself by watching my son learn to read and master it, despite the felt intimidation that we share.

My son and I will never be as well-read as my daughter, but we have our own knowledge and experience. What I’ve learned from both my daughter and my son is driving me to be increasingly well-read and to seek out a discourse community at the University, to make knowledge and build coalitions. My goal is to sponsor more children in their primary literacy so that I can learn even more and perhaps prevent some frustration.

As I shape these thoughts and make meaning from them, forming the shape of this essay before I’ve put a word on paper, I’m driving south on I-15

As I shape these thoughts and make meaning from them, forming the shape of this essay before I’ve put a word on paper, I’m driving south on I-15, satisfied with my composition so far, then suddenly re-aware that I am listening to an audiobook of the Iliad —

As Sarpedon finished, Tlepolemus raised his ash spear high, and the long shafts leapt from both men’s hands in an instant. Sarpedon’s struck square on the neck, and the deadly point sliced clean through, so the darkness of night shrouded Tlepolemus’ sight.

Shit. Who the hell are Sarpedon and Tlepolemus? I’ve just completely missed hundreds of lines in Book V.


[1] Steyvers, F. J., Dekker, K., Brookhuis, K., & Jackson, A. (1994). The experience of road environments under two lighting and traffic conditions: application of a Road Environment Construct List. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8(5), 497–511.