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Yellowstone’s Blog (5) Empty Words

Photograph of Yellowstone national park with smoking pool of water, and blue sky with clouds.
Yellowstone is a teenager with CVI who was diagnosed a few years ago.

When reading isn’t the problem with reading: A Christmas Carol

Yellowstone:  My seventh-grade (age 12) assignment to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ left me feeling an awful lot like Scrooge.

My teacher told us we’d be reading it because it was a tradition that the seventh-graders read it every Christmas. I didn’t even get past the first chapter (or stave or whatever it was called) and I based my test answers on the Scrooge McDuck version. I don’t think I got much out of what I did read, because the only thing I remembered from it was that Scrooge didn’t like falling in love any more than he liked Christmas, and then I kept myself sane the entire time we were reading it by imagining Scrooge being subjected to one of my mom’s favorite movies about falling in love on Christmas and throwing our TV out the window. In my defense, I was twelve. 

At the time, I just thought I was having trouble with the old language. But I’m currently reading ‘Sense and Sensibility’, which is even older, and I’m understanding it way better. Granted, I’m older now, but I’d read old books before without too many problems, so I took a look back through ‘A Christmas Carol’ and found a lot of visual descriptions that I couldn’t make sense of, much less visualize. Some examples are:  

”The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue...”

”...he was all in a glow; his face ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.” 

”The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds...” 

”The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed.”

”Marley in his pig-tail, usual waistcoat, tights, and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pig-tail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head.”

  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

This material is what I found from what I did manage to get through (I still haven’t read the rest of the book because like I said, it’s confusing).

These descriptions are confusing to me because I don’t really have context for them, and I don’t form images in my mind either, so they don’t really serve a purpose to me. I do have, for lack of a better term, ”visualizations”, but they’re not with images. The problem here is that there’s so much visual description (that may or may not affect my understanding of the bigger story, depending on the description). 

I think sometimes I get more meaningful input from my other senses when I’m not looking at things, than I do when I’m looking. Although when I was a kid I kind of just thought ”seeing” meant ”sensory input in general” because people kept talking about seeing things that I wasn’t necessarily seeing but that didn’t mean I didn’t know what they were. I’m not sure exactly when I realized that the word seeing had a more specific meaning.  

From CVI Scotland:  We were discussing this amongst our team and one of our colleagues talked about a recent essay his daughter had asked him to check because it needed to be academic in layout with references, but… she is studying computer science at College and it is a subject he knows very little about. He could read the words but they were like empty words because they conveyed no meaning, so he could read the essay but not understand it. We wondered if this is what reading ‘A Christmas Carol’ was like for you Yellowstone, empty words because for them to have meaning, one needs to be able to create a visual mental picture of what they represent.

Yellowstone:  I think you explained it well. That I’m pretty much reading something I know nothing about. It reminds me of an IQ test I took when I was ten, when CVI was suspected but not officially diagnosed. I guess I didn’t do as well as my mom thought I would on the visual test, because she asked the school to give me the verbal test as well. But the verbal test had references to, for instance, what somebody looks like when they laugh, which I don’t have context for. I don’t think my mom was very happy with the results of that one either, but as I didn’t have services at the time (and wouldn’t get them for another 3 years), we couldn’t really do anything else about it. I also read an article by a mother trying to get her blind daughter into the gifted program, and she said even the test specifically for blind children had references to things you see, so I guess this is a thing. Long story short, I still don’t know what my IQ is but I don’t particularly care either because those tests are way too boring. 

I didn’t figure out that my problem was with the descriptions until months afterwards. I just knew that I liked to read and shouldn’t have been having as much of a problem with it as I was. I’ve also picked up Lord of the Rings (or The Hobbit, really) several times but I’ve never gotten past the description of Bilbo’s hole for the same reasons. 

I think Sense and Sensibility is easier because, while there are visual descriptions, (things like ‘His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman-but she knew that this kind of blunder was too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it.’), there aren’t as many of them as in ‘A Christmas Carol’, I don’t think, or at least maybe I’m more familiar with the kind of descriptions that are there. The point I was trying to make was that my problem wasn’t that the book was old. 

CVI Scotland:  The problem is clearly not related to your ability to read. The difficulty you describe relates to the content in certain texts, which when overly visual in nature makes the story inaccessible to understand in the way that teachers and examiners expect.

Yellowstone: [discussing a reading specialist who is due to assess and offer support to Yellowstone]  I’m not sure what the reading specialist is going to suggest. I figured at the very least, she’s a different person, so she might have different ideas than everybody I’ve talked to so far, which has been a lot of people. I think one of the problems my current people are having is that this isn’t my usual problem (which is with access); I’m actually asking about the content, which I don’t normally do.

Update from Yellowstone:  I will not be talking to the reading specialist, because she told my case manager that if my problem was with vision she wasn’t the right person to handle it. (I appreciate her being honest, and also I could have told them that from the start but I think we just kind of went to her because nobody had any better ideas). My case manager is looking into other stuff now.

Gordon Dutton references this blog in his Blog 36 Imagining & Envisioning.


‘Crystal Clear’
In the wider discussion relating to this blog, the term ‘crystal clear’ was discussed, showing how the meaning of words can be confusing, or inaccessible for people with CVI:

  • CVI Scotland - In a sentence to you, I changed ‘crystal clear’ to ‘really clear’ because I try to avoid using visual ways to describe what I am saying when writing to you, and it made me think how much of the world that you have to navigate, not just at school, involves visual imagery that makes understanding difficult.
  • Yellowstone - ”Crystal clear” is one of those expressions that I understand only because I’ve heard it so often. I understand that it means, like you said, ”really clear”, but I don’t really get how that relates to a crystal. In my experience crystals have either been colored or have distorted light so much that you can’t really see through them, so maybe that expression just doesn’t make sense.
  • CVI Scotland - Your explanation of why the term ‘crystal’ in crystal clear does not make much sense, makes perfect sense. It is those of us who use the term who are not making sense - how ironic is that?

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