ALEXIA.

There is a condition (terrifying to the bibliophiles among us) called alexia, “an acquired type of sensory aphasia where damage to the brain causes a patient to lose the ability to read. It is also called word blindness, text blindness or visual aphasia.” Oliver Sacks, always a stimulating writer, describes it in the latest New Yorker in “A Man of Letters” (June 28, 2010, pp. 22-28; not online, but here‘s a summary). Unfortunately, having blown my circuits by finishing the book I was editing, watching (and shouting myself hoarse over) the terminally exciting U.S. win over Algeria at the World Cup, and then subjecting myself to the longest tennis match in history (suspended for the night after almost ten hours, with the score 59-59 in the fifth and final set), I am not in condition to provide a thoughtful analysis; I will just quote a poignant line from the subject of the article, the novelist Howard Engel—”My life had been built on reading everything in sight”—and urge you to find a copy of the magazine. Oh, and here‘s an NPR story on the subject (with a link to an audio file), and here‘s “Johnson”‘s take on it. Fascinating stuff.

Comments

  1. Mattitiahu says:

    It always greatly disturbed me that an incredible amount of what we know in the neurolinguistics literature was discovered from studying cases of brain damage.

  2. When I imagine the awful possibility of alexia — or blindness — I console myself with the option of audiobooks. If I’m feeling especially generous, I picture myself surrounded by friends and kind strangers offering to read to me (as they also top up my tea).
    The tennis has gone beyond improbable into a realm of Beckettian absurdity. I can’t imagine how intense is the players’ muscle cramp, but it will fade next to the psychological pain of the eventual loser.

  3. One of the best Slavic linguists, Robert Greenberg, found his eyesight failing during graduate school due to macular degeneration. He learned to shift all his “reading” to computer-generated aural text, somehow, and has continued a successful and well-respected academic career (currently a dean in NYC, though Yale has succeeded in luring him to New Haven to teach a class every year — the dept chairman here would love to have him permanently on the faculty). So when I read Sack’s story of the author who lost his ability to recognize letters, I thought of Robert Greenberg.

  4. bathrobe says:

    hope this wont happened to me:)
    What exactly is behind the incredibly poor standard of English of these spammers? Is it because they are non-native speakers? Or is their understanding English grammar really that bad? I’m not being prescriptive here. The problem is that a past tense (happened) just doesn’t belong with a future tense (won’t happen) whatever kind of English you learn. The utter wretchedness of their English beggars belief!

  5. next to the psychological pain of the eventual loser.
    couldn’t it be, like, there could be created an exception/precedent) to award the champion title to both of them, like, once in the history
    otherwise it’s too unfair for the “eventual loser”
    in the olympics iirc, there were double gold medals, no? or maybe those were just the team golds
    anyway, khojil khoyor tiishee (may both of them win)

  6. What exactly is behind the incredibly poor standard of English of these spammers?
    I believe Geoff Pullum has sounded off about this at the Log somewhere.

  7. When I was 24 I suffered a stroke. Besides paralysis on the right side of my body;I became aphasiac and, briefly too, suffered alexia.
    One often takes for granted how seeing a letter
    (or words)transmits to the vocal folds an impulse
    to speak or tacitly in the mind’s tongue vocalize. This same seeing imparts a type of tension between the signifier/signified as an idea resolves into a lucid concept.
    But to have this seeing produce an abysmal vacuum,
    where no concepts leap from the page and the
    text is simply sterile is an impossible event to
    efficiently describe; save for those that have
    experienced it.
    Try to imagine looking at a letter, or letters,
    and drawing a complete blank!
    It reminded me of being very alone and vulnerable.
    Alexia in my life was short lived; fortunately.
    Regards,
    jimf

  8. What exactly is behind the incredibly poor standard of English of these spammers?

    The AUX ppP in place of AUX Inf is (increasingly?) common in text by native speakers. I originally thought it was limited to “didn’t used to” because of the “d t” ‘geminate consonant’, but I’m now seeing it in cases where there is not such phonological explanation as well.

    It always greatly disturbed me that an incredible amount of what we know in the neurolinguistics literature was discovered from studying cases of brain damage.

    I take some small comfort in the knowledge that braindamage need not be the end of one’s ability to contribute to human knowledge. Through the sufferings of a few, we may help the many.

  9. When I was teaching English I had no luck in explaining the distinctions between “-ed” and “ing” adjectives. “I am interested” v. “I am interesting”. I was able to explain it, but not so that students could understand. “I am very interesting in movies”.

  10. When I was teaching English I had no luck in explaining the distinctions between “-ed” and “ing” adjectives. “I am interested” v. “I am interesting”. I was able to explain it, but not so that students could understand. “I am very interesting in movies”.

  11. Bathrobe says:

    I’m one up on you John. I found somehow I managed to explain it. But they still got it wrong. :)

  12. It always greatly disturbed me that an incredible amount of what we know in the neurolinguistics literature was discovered from studying cases of brain damage.

    I don’t see what is disturbing about the fact that we can learn from unusual situations and conditions. In fact it is impossible to learn anything from what is familiar. That’s essentially the definition of familiar: something is familiar when you already know all about it, or think you do. Everything ever written or said that is worth reading or listening to, is unusual. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth spending time on. Learning is only possible at the boundaries of knowledge, where ignorance begins.

  13. Luhmann remarked in this connection:

    Sense always refers to sense. It can never refer to something outside the domain of sense…. Systems that are tied to sense can never have a senseless experience, or act senselessly. … [But] a preference for sense over world, for order over disturbance, for information over noise is merely a preference. It doesn’t make their counterparts superfluous. Indeed we can say that the process that is sense (Sinnprozess) thrives on disturbances, feeds off disorder, and is encouraged by noise.

  14. JE and Bathrobe, maybe your students really got it right, but you just didn’t realize it. My Jordanian students seemed to do all right with “interesting/interested, boring/bored” until they got to the test and said a parking lot was “interesting”. The answer key said the parking lot was “boring”. As it turned out, they had never seen a parking lot or a supermarket before, and the nearby Safeway parking lot had become the local hot spot. I had to give it to them. But I don’t remember any more if they said my class was “interesting” or “boring”.

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