Some years back, my parents gave me the book Life of Pi for a present. It’s the story about a guy from India whose ship goes down at sea, and he ends up in a lifeboat at sea with a bunch of wild animals (that had been on the ship) with him in the boat, and how he manages to survive the voyage with a tiger on board. I guess my folks thought I would enjoy it, since I work in technology and I have a lot of dealings with folks from India on a regular basis. Plus, it was full of interesting facts about animals and zoos and … I’m not sure what else, because I couldn’t finish the book. Bottom line is, it was just the kind of book I loved as a kid, and they seemed to think I’d really get a kick out of it.
In retrospect, some Benadryl would have done me more good in improving the quality of my life. I know my folks were only trying to help me entertain myself, but my attempt at reading the book — about a year after my fall in 2004 — was so ill-fated, it stands as an excellent example of what TBI has done to my thought process and memory… and how that affects my ability to read, remember, and make progress with written material. It also highlights how TBI has utterly stripped me of one of the great joys of my past life — engrossing, fact-filled fiction that educates as well as entertains.
If you’ve read Life of Pi, you know that it is rich in detail and the action is pretty cerebral — it’s perfect for my parents, who are very heady types and love to noodle around with ideas that intrigue them. It used to be perfect for me, too, but from my very first attempt at reading the book, it became pretty clear that something was different with me. I started reading and got pulled into the backstory… the early years of the protagonist in India, his upbringing, his experiences, and how he ended up on a ship with a bunch of animals on it.
I did prett well for the first 20 pages or so, but I found that the farther into the book I got, the more turned around I got. I thought I was following, but things were starting to not make much sense. There’s a lot of information in there about animals and India and zoos, and the action switches between a lifeboat at sea and a house in — I think — Toronto, Canada. And the more information that was packed into the storyline… the more references there were to past info that I “should have” remembered… the more confused and frustrated I got.
Once upon a time, I would have really thrived on this sort of writing. It read like a wave of accumulating detail, each page building on past pages of information, insight, cross-reference, and so on. Talk about a recipe for TBI disaster! Before long, I was totally lost. I couldn’t keep track of who was doing/saying what… which animals were in the boat… what the main character was talking about… if it was in the present or the past, or wherever. It was the supreme WTF?! reading experience for me, and I had to keep back-tracking to refresh my memory about who was who and what they were doing and why they were doing it. Here’s a picture of how my reading experience went:
It was really very frustrating. There I was, with this book in hand that my parents were sure I would just love — and just a few years before, I probably would have. But I kept getting so confused and so turned around by the details and losing my place and running out of steam and not being able to concentrate and not being sure what was happening and why I should care… it took me months and months just to move a few pages ahead, and even when I was making good progress, I would have to retrace my steps, check details earlier in the story, and then slog on through, trying to pick up where I’d left off.
Eventually I just gave up and left the book on my bedside stand.
My intention was to pick it up again and finish reading it, but time passed, I lost track of even more details about the story, and ultimately I had to hide the book — out of sight, out of mind — that danged reminder/hint that something was wrong with my brain.
The wild thing was, it didn’t even occur to me that I might be having genuine cognitive problems reading and comprehending and remembering. I thought that the book was the problem. “It just didn’t hold my attention,” I told myself. “It was obscure. Obtuse. Disconnected.” Or somesuch. I didn’t stop to think that it was my brain that was having the problem — it was the book… all about the book. Oh, no – the problem couldn’t possibly be with me!
I spent the next year or so dodging questions from my folks about how I liked the book. I gave them some vague answer — like I have done my entire life, when they’ve asked me about things or tried to talk to me about things that I was foggy or confused about. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t tell them that I’d become hopelessly lost, a quarter of the way into it, and I just didn’t have the stamina or the patience to slog through the ordeal of — from the way they described it — a pleasant and entertaining read. I didn’t want them to feel badly — for me, or for themselves. They had been so sure I would love the book, and in a former incarnation, I’m sure I would have. But that kid they once knew was gone, and in their place was this overtired, cranky, easily confused, easily provoked wild person with a hair-trigger temper.
Crazy. Just crazy.
Eventually, I gave the book away — I almost made the mistake of giving it back to them for a holiday present. Thank heavens I at least remembered where the book came from, so I didn’t have to dig myself out of that embarrassing situation. It’s bad enough losing something that meant so much to me once upon a time — my love of fiction — but having to explain it to people who don’t perceive or understand that loss is a recipe for despair. And I’m not going there, if I don’t have to.