The Advantages of Being a Flea Hopping Through the Pages of an Encyclopedia

by Tina Blue
December 28, 2001

          During the month of June I usually have a temporary fulltime job at a company that scores state assessment tests.  We get a 15-minute break at 10:00 a.m. and another at 2:15 p.m.  We also get a 1/2-hour lunch break at noon.

          That adds up to a full hour of break time.

          Like any other compulsive reader, I always take reading material with me to occupy that hour.

          And like any other compulsive writer, I always take writing materials with me.

          Both.  Always.

          In fact, whenever I go to any activity or any place where there is a possibility of downtime, I take along both reading and writing materials.

          Most people would probably consider that a bit extreme.  Why both?  Why not either or?

          But that's not even half of it.

          If there is any possibility of downtime, I will take two, three, sometimes even four different kinds of reading material.  And if it is during the school year, I am also likely to carry along a half dozen or more student essays to grade.

          If you are, well, a normal person, you may be thinking that I am a bit off-kilter.  Most people would take a book or a magazine to read if they expected to have to sit around for a while with nothing to do.  Or maybe they would take a tablet and a pen if they preferred writing to reading.

          But some of you who are reading this have already started nodding and chuckling in recognition.  You know who you are--the fleas hopping through the pages of an encyclopedia.

          Many of us who have ADHD do not read just one book at a time.  Nor do we read or write.  We do it all at once, as near to simultaneously as is humanly possible. 

     When a new acquaintance first starts to get to know me, there will inevitably come a moment when he finds me in a chair or at a table, surrounded by several different open books or magazines, and often with tablet and pencil in hand, as well.

          At first the new friend will assume I am studying a specific subject and looking it up in several different sources, but usually that is not what I am doing at all.

          What I am doing is reading in one book until I suddenly realize how much I want to be reading in some other book, and then I'll read in that book until I realize that I want to see what articles are featured in the magazine that just came in the mail.  But while I am reading this or that, an idea for an article will pop up, and I'll just have to get it written right then, before some inner compulsion drives me to the next thing.

          Oh, and the way I read is not like the way most of you read--though, again, I am quite sure that some of you will see yourselves in me as I tackle a book inside out and backwards.

          That's right.  I almost never start at the beginning and work my way through a book or an article.  I may start at the end and work my way more or less systematically to the beginning.  Or I may start in the middle and work my way simultaneously toward the beginning and the end.

          Or I may jump around--back and forth, here and there--until I've read the whole thing (or enough to determine that the whole thing is not worth reading, or that it's not necessary to read it all in order to understand what I need to understand from it.)
          Obviously you can't read this way without a good memory, but that's okay.  I have an excellent memory.

          Many people have been horrified to discover that I read so many things at once, and usually inside out or backwards at that, and often while writing articles or grading student essays more or less at the same time.

          "How do you keep from getting confused?" they ask in amazement.

          But I don't see where confusion would come in.  When I stop reading an article in, say, The New Republic to read a few chapters in a book on Sir Francis Drake, and then stop to grade an essay or two on poetry or fiction, or to write an article on grammar or one on deafness, there is no reason why one subject should"leak" into another.

          If you are cooking spaghetti sauce and the phone rings, you don't put your sauce spoon to your ear and stir the sauce with the telephone receiver, do you?  They are two distinct activities.  There is no reason to confuse them.

          Similarly, if I am grading an essay on a poem by Louise Bogan, nothing I have been reading about Sir Francis Drake or in The New Republic is going to confuse my understanding of what the student is saying about the poem.

          And I am not going to be thinking about the poem while I am reading a book or an article in a magazine, or while I am writing an article for one of my websites.

          The problem for most people, I think, is the sudden switching from one intellectual activity to another.  They can imagine multitasking.  Indeed, most people do multitask these days.  What they can't imagine is thinking hard about one subject and then suddenly switching to thinking hard about another.

          I believe that for many people intellectual activity requires a process of disengagement from the world outside their minds and a concentrated act of engagement with their subject of study.

          And then they need time to disengage from their subject of analysis and to rejoin the world outside their mind.  That's why most people don't even try to read or write in 10- or 15-minute bursts or in situations where they are likely to be interrupted. 

          But in today's world it isn't easy to find long expanses of uninterrupted time, so a lot of people never get around to reading what they want to read or writing what they want to write,

          Having ADD or ADHD in a social environment like the one we live in today can be very difficult.  If you have ADD or ADHD, the constant interruptions, the fast pace, and the incessant barrage of stimuli can trigger a compulsive switching from task to task, to the point where it is hard to concentrate on anything long enough to complete it.

          Even more than most, we who have ADD or ADHD live among the debris of unfinished tasks--half-read books, half-written letters, checks written to pay the bills, but the envelopes never stamped and mailed, clothes washed but not folded and put away, etc.

          But sometimes our jumpiness works to our advantage.

          You see, it doesn't bother us to hop from one thing to another.  That's our natural mode of operation.
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