It Might Surprise You, but... / by Jahan Sharif

Photo by the magical,  Ghazal Sheei

Photo by the magical, Ghazal Sheei

Reading is probably the skill I have the most troubled relationship with. It did not come easily to me, and I still don’t feel like I’m that good at it. My style is also fairly particular. Not only can I not skim, but I have to read every single word. And if I don’t completely understand a sentence or a paragraph, I can’t move on. I also don’t have much stamina, only able to read a few pages in a sitting. My type of reading takes a lot of time, and time is not something the Western education model provides much of. 

In school, I struggled with reading comprehension. When teachers asked me to read a passage, and then tell them what I thought it meant, I typically couldn’t come up with an answer. As I got older, I got better at hiding my deficiency. I was born a good talker, and sometime around middle school, I realized that if I listened closely to what my classmates said, I could quickly come up with something that sounded good, even if it didn’t make any sense. This is also how I learned that if you say something confidently, people will usually think twice before challenging you. 

This worked for me until I faced the SATs. There were no crutches here. No arguing the validity of my interpretation over the teacher’s. No clock to run out. I got swept into the wave of prep: practice tests, speed drills, and time hacks: “Read the first and last sentences of the paragraph coseley, then skim the middle.” one test prep teacher said. “Underline the essential key words, and look for them in the questions.” instructed another.  Prep books encouraged me to read for the gist, which made absolutely no sense to me. 

None of these worked with my brain. So I supplemented all of these tools with my own strategy of reverse engineering the questions and identifying the patterns. Then in the test, I’d read the questions first and think of the type of answer I’d expect. If it was there, I’d look for the evidence in the passage. If it wasn’t, I’d skip it and come back to it in the end. I scored a 680 out of 800. 

Photo by the magical,  Ghazal Sheei

Photo by the magical, Ghazal Sheei

Somehow, by the grace of good luck and good genes, I did not graduate high school having internalized my slow reading as “slow = bad = dumb.” Instead, I internalized it as “slow = bad = insecure.” And so I went to college with a little bit of a complex. But thank god I went to college! Because in college, nobody tells you how you should complete assignments. 

This worked for me.

I read books at my own pace, and augmented them with lots of YouTube lectures and magazine articles. In time, I learned that I had no problem with reading or with comprehension, and that I am neither fast, nor slow. What I am, is meticulous. And it is simply very hard to be meticulous and in a hurry. 

In renaming my reading style I reframed it, claimed it, and flipped it into an asset. It is probably one of the most important decisions I’ve made, because books have become critical resources in my own journey into adulthood, self-actualization, and purpose. 

The Sellout.jpg

And that’s why I love sharing books and stories with people: Because, I want for them what has happened for me. It was in this spirit that I shared my favorite books of the summer with you a few weeks ago. I got loads of responses from subscribers who appreciated the recommendations, and were excited to pick up copies of their own. Others had already read them, and happily volunteered their takes. I loved it!

I’d like to continue this conversation by inviting you to join me in reading my next book: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. It’s a comedy set in Los Angeles about a Black man who owns a slave and reinstates segregation, but is then challenged and has to take his case to the Supreme Court. From what I understand, it’s quite the risky read! 

I started reading for pleasure later than many, but earlier than too many. And I want us all to start to love reading, and to love books again!  So whether you read a book a week, or nothing longer than a tweet, I want you to join me in this; because books are important, books are fun, and books can do things that only books can do (which you’ll only understand if you’re a reader of books.) But most of all, I want you to join me in this, because like almost everything else, books are more fun when you read them with friends. 

Los Angeles, CA, USA
September 2019