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From Reading Cereal Boxes to Kafka, a Dyslexic's Journey to Becoming a Voracious Reader

Passionate readers spring out at you from far and wide. Andrew Edwards is one such person. From Colne Engaine in the UK, he’s the head cook at the very popular vegetarian Bob’s Kitchen in Paris, a place I often visit to take away lunch. One day, I’m not quite sure how, Andrew discovered my work consisted of writing about books. His eyes shining, while leaping nimbly behind the counter dishing out veggie stew and shoving carrots into a juicer, he explained that as a 30-something, he had just started to read in a serious manner, having been dyslexic as a child, and asked, could I recommend any books?

In fact, Andrew didn’t need me at all. He had already Googled the 100 best books to read, and had consulted and cross referenced several lists. He had read through much of George Orwell and was reading William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. As a recovering addict from all mind-altering substances, Andrew said off-handedly, he could relate. And as a dyslexic who had never read narrative fiction before, he had set the bar terrifically high—no lowbrow stuff for him.

The next time I went to Bob’s Kitchen Andrew announced he had started to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

I sat down with Andrew after his shift to talk to him about his quest to read narrative fiction. Following are a few insights about his journey towards reading, and a short list of recent books he has read. Next time, if I can get a word in edgewise, I might suggest some Bookwitty reading lists to him.


“As a child, my dyslexia wasn’t caught until age 12 or 13, and I couldn’t read to any effective standard. I couldn’t continue the narrative through a chapter.”


“I had an enormous vocabulary, could understand the meaning of a word, but I couldn’t spell it or structure it in an academic sense.”


“I watched a lot of films on television, music was a big thing in our house, I was detrimentally curious, and I talked a lot.”


“I read cereal boxes. It was short little bits, blurbs, and thoughts. It was straightforward marketing and I enjoyed the process of eating and reading.”


“Much later I turned into a Tai Chi Hitler. I devoured all self-help religious and meditation books. I annoyed a lot of people. Then I discovered Qi Gong, which healed my body, and at that moment I had space in my mind to read. I still have symptoms of dyslexia but I can relax and stay focused now.”


“My relationship with narrative fiction began when I moved to Paris. The first books I tackled were George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, then Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I decided then that I’d like to have an understanding of what great writing is.”


“I read [Franz] Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial and I loved them both. Growing up I had a huge libido but no one found me sexually attractive. Kafka was physically weak, but he had a huge libido. That was fucking me. I knew I’d be mates with Kafka.”


“After I read Orwell’s Down and Out, I read Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, and 1984. I’m starting to feel he’s my favorite author.”


"I read Hunter Thomson, starting with Hell’s Angels. It was an autobiography. I fucking love him but wouldn’t want him to be my dad.”


"Then I read [William Burroughs’] Naked Lunch. Going from The Trial and then 1984 and then to Naked Lunch my head exploded. They are so dark and so well laid out, it’s not fantastical to believe those things. The description of addiction in Naked Lunch was totally amazing.”


"I’m reading Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s beautifully written and there are gems of descriptions and nothing is wasted, it’s so pungent and imaginary. But I still don’t know what the fuck is going on.”


"I like diaries, I really, really love first person accounts. I want another Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I want another Down and Out. But I found Jack Kerouac’s On the Road flabby and a bit annoying. I loved the context and the descriptions but you could cut a third of it.”


“I’ve now read through Kafka, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Pinter, Chekhov, Hunter Thompson, and Orwell. I’m going to do Steinbeck. And Tolstoy.”


“Reading is now a massive part of my life. I read sporadically; I go through phases. A Moveable Feast I read in three hours.” 

Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell's vivid memoir of his time living among the desperately poor and destitute, Down and Out in Paris and London is a moving tour of the underworld of society.'You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them.' Written when Orwell was a struggling writer in his twenties, it documents his 'first contact with poverty'. Here, he painstakingly documents a world of unrelenting drudgery and squalor - sleeping in bug-infested hostels and doss houses of last resort, working as a dishwasher in Paris, surviving on scraps and cigarette butts, living alongside tramps, a star-gazing pavement artist and a starving Russian ex-army captain. Orwell gave a human face to the statistics of poverty for the first time - and in doing so, found his voice as a writer.

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1984

The year 1984 has come and gone, but George Orwell's prophetic, nightmarish vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever. 1984 is still the great modern classic of "negative utopia" , a startlingly original and haunting novel that creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing, from the first sentence to the last four words. No one can deny the novel's hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions, a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.

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A Moveable Feast

Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway's most beloved works. It brilliantly evokes the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the unbridled creativity and enthusiasm that Hemingway himself experienced. In the world of letters it is a unique insight into a great literary generation, by one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.

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The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella of unexplained horror and nightmarish transformation became a worldwide classic and remains a century later one of the most widely read works of fiction in the world. It is the story of traveling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect. This hugely influential work inspired George Orwell, Albert Camus, Jorge Louis Borges, and Ray Bradbury, while continuing to unsettle millions of readers. In her new translation of Kafka’s masterpiece, Susan Bernofsky strives to capture both the humor and the humanity in this macabre tale, underscoring the ways in which Gregor Samsa’s grotesque metamorphosis is just the physical manifestation of his longstanding spiritual impoverishment.

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The Trial

'Someone must have been telling tales about Josef K. for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.' A successful professional man wakes up one morning to find himself under arrest for an offence which is never explained. The mysterious court which conducts his trial is outwardly co-operative, but capable of horrific violence. Faced with this ambiguous authority, Josef K. gradually succumbs to its psychological pressure. He consults various advisers without escaping his fate. Was there some way out that he failed to see? Kafka's unfinished novel has been read as a study of political power, a pessimistic religious parable, or a crime novel where the accused man is himself the problem.

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Naked Lunch

Nightmarish and fiercely funny, William Burroughs' virtuoso, taboo-breaking masterpiece Naked Lunch follows Bill Lee through Interzone: a surreal, orgiastic wasteland of drugs, depravity, political plots, paranoia, sadistic medical experiments and endless, gnawing addiction. One of the most shocking novels ever written, Naked Lunch is a cultural landmark, now in a restored edition incorporating Burroughs' notes on the text, alternate drafts and outtakes from the original.

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Hell's Angels

From the father of 'gonzo journalism', Hunter S. Thompson's research for Hell's Angels involved more than a year of close association with the outlaws who burned a path through 1960s America, resulting in a masterpiece of underground reportage. 'A phalanx of motorcycles cam roaring over the hill from the west ... the noise was like a landslide, or a wing of bombers passing over. Even knowing the Angels I couldn't quite handle what I was seeing.' Huge bikes, filthy denim and an aura of barely contained violence; the Hell's Angels could paralyse whole towns with fear. But how much of that reputation was myth and how much was brutal reality? Only one man could discover the truth about these latter-day barbarians; Hunter S. Thompson, Dr Gonzo himself, the man who saw the fear and loathing at the heart of the American dream. Determined to discover the truth behind the terrifying reputation of these marauding biker gangs, Thompson spent a year on the road with the Angels, documenting his hair-raising experiences with Charger Charley, Big Frank, Little Jesus and the Gimp. Hell's Angels is the hair-raising result: a free-wheeling, impressionistic counter-culture classic that made Hunter S. Thompson's name as the wild man of American writing.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

`We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive ..."'Hunter S. Thompson is roaring down the desert highway to Las Vegas with his attorney, the Samoan, to find the dark side of the American Dream. Armed with a drug arsenal of stupendous proportions, the duo engage in a surreal succession of chemically enhanced confrontations with casino operators, police officers and assorted Middle Americans.

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On the Road

On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the exhilarating novel that defined the Beat Generation 'What's your road, man? - holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.' Sal Paradise, young and innocent, joins the slightly crazed Dean Moriarty on a breathless, exuberant ride back and forth across the United States. Their hedonistic search for release or fulfilment through drink, sex, drugs and jazz becomes an exploration of personal freedom, a test of the limits of the American Dream.

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Ulysses

A modernist novel of supreme stylistic innovation, James Joyce's Ulysses is the towering achievement of twentieth century literature. Written between 1914 and 1921, Ulysses has survived bowdlerization, legal action and bitter controversy. Capturing a single day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, his friends Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus, his wife Molly, and a scintillating cast of supporting characters, Joyce pushes Celtic lyricism and vulgarity to splendid extremes. An undisputed modernist classic, its ceaseless verbal inventiveness and astonishingly wide-ranging allusions confirm its standing as an imperishable monument to the human condition. 

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty. She is based in Paris.

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