Notes on Hungry Contentment

Dr. Lauren Winner, a bookworm so devoted she once gave up reading for Lent because it was the most meaningful sacrifice she could imagine, filled her living spaces with books. In one of her memoirs, Girl Meets God, she describes a small New York City apartment crammed to bursting. Cook books and fiction and poetry in the kitchen. History, theology and ethics books in her bedroom. More history in the den. By the couch, civil rights books. In the hallway, memoirs, essays, and yet more history. In every available space, she lived alongside encyclopedias, sociology books, religious commentaries, reference books, writings on feminist theory, books about “Buddhist communities in California.”

Everywhere, books.

For most blind bookworms, such abundance is unimaginable. Many of us own a library’s worth of eBooks and audio books, now that they are more affordable, but to pack one’s house with Braille books wouldn’t make much sense. Braille books are bulky and multi-volumed. They take up a lot of space on bookshelves. They are expensive and hard to come by, unless you own your own $5,000 embosser and don’t mind subjecting your neighbours to its mighty industrial brrrrr.

When it comes to textbooks, we tend to put up with the bulk and expense, though digital braille is removing this need as well. Otherwise, I know very few blind book lovers who can justify owning more than a dozen or so books in braille. (I currently own zero braille books, because space.) Where would you put them? How would you pay for them?

Being rather ruthless in my practicality, I’ve never let this bother me much. I can still read virtually anything I want. I just have to settle for a digital version. The trade-off is more than worth it, when you consider that just a few short years ago, I had to ration my books so I wouldn’t run out of braille and audio material.

But I cannot deny that I miss books. I miss the physicality of turning pages, smelling that papery scent, hearing coils crackle and binding groan. I miss holding a new book in my hands, or at least the first volume of said book, being reassured by its heft. I miss reading without headphones, without speakers, without an internet connection or a mobile device or a braille display. I miss cradling a book in my lap and knowing that I am only here to read. This bundle of paper cannot tweet at me or call me. There is no do not disturb function to remember to use, because a book does only one thing, and it does it very well. There are no batteries to charge, no Bluetooth connections to rely on, just me and words and pages turning, like a journey I can feel under my fingers.

Then there are the pleasures I miss without ever having them in the first place. How much would I love to scribble in the margins, or highlight a favourite passage? Wouldn’t it be great to lend my friends my books, made unique by my marginalia, and to receive theirs in return? Wouldn’t it be fun to meander through a bookstore, flipping through unfamiliar pages in search of treasure? What would it be like to enjoy illustrations, to literally judge a book by its cover? To gaze at author photos and guess what sort of person has been captured there? To have more than an academic opinion about book design, one informed by personal taste as well as the second-hand knowledge I’ve memorized from other people’s ideas?

Today, I am seized by an irrational, unpragmatic longing. I want to surround myself with bookshelves and book stacks and precarious book towers. Filling my kitchen and bedside table and living room and hallway with the hundreds of books I’ve fallen in love with seems like heaven. I’m enchanted by the extravagance of it, the lack of efficiency, the defiant wastefulness of being buried in books. Oh, the slow-paced joy of reading my way along a shelf to choose a book, instead of searching a hard drive or Googling for it. What a privilege to sit with poetry and read it line by line, down an actual page, without hitting a scroll button. ‘Tis so sweet to turn pages, loudly, and feel the book thinning ahead of me as I progress. I want to rush to find the next volume, find it quickly so I don’t tumble out of the story.

Right now, facing a quiet Christmas Eve with few distractions, I am passionately grateful for digital books, and broken up by a desire for a bundle of paper. I bless my well-organized digital collection for its portability, and I curse my clunky braille display for pretending to be something it isn’t.

I acknowledge that digital reading makes more sense, even as I acknowledge that, for me, it is by no means a lossless format. Each time I depend upon a digital experience to mimic my true preference, I lose a personal, irreplaceable sacredness.

So often, being blind means embracing this push and pull. I am thankful for the technology that brings me closer to equality, and I hunger for the “real thing.” I rely on approximations, simulations, and other people’s view of the world. Without them, I couldn’t function nearly so well.

But there’s this, too: I’m allowed not to like it. I’m allowed to hunger, without denying the richness of a sightless life. We blind humans are complex creatures. We can bless and curse, feel grateful and long for more. My experiences have taught me we are more fulfilled when we permit ourselves to do both.

The Freedom To Read

On February 26, Canadians will begin celebrating Freedom to Read Week, which reminds us of the danger of censorship and the importance of intellectual liberty for everyone. It’s a time to reflect on the harm done by banning books and restricting access to controversial ideas. I’m a big fan of this occasion, because I routinely seek out viewpoints that make me uncomfortable. Forcing myself to ask hard questions can be unpleasant, but frequent soul-searching helps me keep my mind open and my opinions balanced.
As dear as this cause is to my heart, I’ve found that the phrase “freedom to read” means something different to me—something deeply personal and specific to my disability. You see, much of my childhood and young adulthood was made less fulfilling because I did not have total freedom to read. Braille books were difficult to come by, especially rare ones, and audio books used to be prohibitively expensive. Later, when a mix of talking books and access to the internet helped me nourish the hungry bookworm that has always lived inside me, I realized just how difficult it had been to live in a world where I missed out on so much while my peers dealt with no such limitations. Imagine waltzing into a library or bookstore and just…reading, whatever you want, whenever you want! This is a privilege most able people will never have to think twice about; it’s automatic and taken for granted by the majority of people. For me, though, it was a novel concept.
I couldn’t experience the pleasure of binge-reading; my supply of literature was far too inconsistent for that. I often curbed my urge to read everything in sight, knowing that if I didn’t ration my reading material, I’d regret it later. By the time I was in ninth grade, I’d literally read every book the nearest resource centre had to offer, which I found devastating. The CNIB library finally saved me, but until then I felt intense deprivation.
Reading, more than any other activity, gives me indescribable joy. Books are my refuge, sort of like a friend who will never desert me. Reading is how I relax. It’s how I learn. It’s how I entertain myself and expand my horizons. It’s an invaluable educational tool, because I get much less out of videos and am quite introverted. It’s my chief source of comfort and solace. Whenever life gets a little too complicated, I retreat to my books, though I read almost as much when times are good. I feel giddy at the mere thought of finding someone new to talk books with. In short, I cannot imagine a life without reading.
There are other times when my freedom to read is compromised. I can’t usually read signs, billboards, posters and other visual materials. Taking photos of objects using specialized software is one of the only ways to identify labels and read instructions (though instructions are commonly posted online now, which helps an immeasurable amount). If my portable scanner isn’t handy, I sometimes need documents in hard copy to be read aloud to me. I can’t normally read paperwork I’m supposed to fill out, meaning strangers are privy to sensitive information and must spend time they don’t have assisting me. I can’t use most debit machines independently. The list goes on.
In this, as in so many other situations, the internet has contributed to a more positive reading experience. I can binge-read to my heart’s content. I can be very selective about what I choose to read. I have access to almost all reading material in existence, whether it’s rare or common. For the most part, things are next door to perfect.
I want everyone to know how vital it is that people with disabilities be allowed to read as freely as they please. They have the right to be exposed to new ideas and a variety of stories, just like able people. The hardest part about being a very young child was my inability to read. Waiting around for a grownup to take the time was excruciating, and even now, when I have to be read to, I feel like a child. I don’t want future blind people to be treated like children. I never want them to be compelled to read books they don’t enjoy because there are no other options. I am passionate about literacy, and the right of every person around the world to benefit from it. (This is why I become incandescent with rage whenever people suggest that braille has lost its relevance.) Literacy was my ticket to an equal education, and it is the bread and butter of my career. Navigating an educational system that believed I was “lucky to go to school at all” could only be accomplished by proving I was a good student, for which reading was key.
If we can all have the freedom to read, I think the world will be a much better place.

Confessions of a Blind Binge-reader: It’s Not Just About the Books

Anyone who knows me even a little is aware that I’m a devoted bookworm. I think nothing of finishing a book in one day—sometimes one sitting, depending on how engrossing it is—and those who follow me on social media are privy to my prolific reviewing habits on Goodreads. I spend much of my time in class, studying, socializing, and reading material not generally considered fun (though I’ve been known to take pleasure in reading my sociology textbook now and then), but I have always found time for leisure reading. I have sometimes been too busy to sleep; too tired to study; too desolate to go out. I don’t think I’ve ever been too anything to read. Reading is by turns a learning experience, an exploration of human nature, and an escape when things get too difficult. In short, I read for all the reasons anyone else reads.

I’ve been teased about the sheer volume of books I get through; I’ve had a friend ask, without a trace of irony, how many books I read “today” (it wasn’t even noon at the time). I know many other people who read at least as much as I do, but I admit that it’s not just about the books. Until I was given unfettered access to the internet at age fifteen, books were a luxury. Braille was hard to come by; most of the books I read in school were lent to me by an Albertan organization dedicated mostly to producing textbooks. However, they did boast an impressive collection of leisure reading, particularly classics. I devoured so many books as a student that by the time I was fourteen, I’d exhausted more or less every book they offered. I then signed up for the CNIB library, which sustained me until I gained better access to Ebooks. Even then, titles took months to arrive after they’d been ordered, and while the library did send me random books suited to my age group, they were often falling apart at the seams, badly squashed, or covered in suspicious substances resembling, at least in one case, strawberry jam.

Even when I did have books to read, they were always limited. I had to choose from a select few, and I had to return them as quickly as possible so that I could receive more. I remember slogging laboriously through books I absolutely hated (If you ask my former EA, she’ll remember how much I complained while reading “Huckleberry Finn”) because I didn’t have much choice. When your selection of literature is scant, you can’t get too picky about what you read.

Forget about buying my own books: braille books were so rare and so costly that when I won my first ever book in a draw, I kept it long after I’d wrung any enjoyment from it. I still have it to this day, and I’m not sure I could just hand it off to someone else. You never forget your first braille book.

It was the same with audio books: while I was growing up, audio books were not nearly as prevalent as they are now. They were expensive, and thus were quite rare. I remember literally shrieking with delight each Christmas when my parents would present me with the newest Harry Potter book, or the next volume of Paolini’s Inheritance Series. Now and then, people would find audio books at garage sales or in bargain bins and I’d be treated to some of the most random selections you can think of. When I was nine, someone gave me “The Green Mile”, obviously not thinking this through. My mom happened to listen in while I was reading one night and just about lost her mind when I asked, with total innocence, what a “faggot” was. As a kid, I was introduced to the autobiography of Mia Farrow (complete with the famous sex scandal involving Woody Allen), Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat”, and Grisham’s “The Client” … these were just a few of the completely inappropriate, yet no less enjoyable, reads I was exposed to via audio. I had an interesting time back then, I can tell you.

When my reading world expanded and I suddenly had almost every book in existence at my fingertips, I hardly knew what to do with myself. I began binge reading—grabbing every mildly interesting book I could find and ravenously searching for more. One of my most persistent fears, all throughout my life, was running out of reading material. Gone are the days when I had to read the Old Testament because it was summer vacation and I didn’t have any books to read. Gone are the days when I’d have to struggle through Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” even though I despised every page. Now, I can read what I want to, without fear of consuming too much material too quickly. Now, I don’t have to ration my books, because there will always be another one waiting for me.

This is the kind of freedom most sighted readers have enjoyed all their lives. The public library stocked nearly every book they’d ever want to read, and they always had access to newspapers and magazines. There was no need to read 400 pages of something they hated just because books were too scarce. The great thing is that blind kids of the future will not have to go through what I and many other blind people did. They will have access to digitized braille (as well as actual books, of course) and plain text ebooks. They will be able to read the “back cover” and decide which books interest them. They will not have to wonder where their next book is coming from. Nearly every bit of reading material—whether on paper or on the web—will be accessible to them.

And, just like sighted people, they won’t have any idea how lucky they are.

You see, it’s not just about the books. It’s not about reading so much that people will take notice and praise (or ridicule) me. It’s about freedom of choice, and equal access, and autonomy. It’s about spending my time the way I want to, without worrying about having to ration my enjoyment.

So, fellow blind binge readers, enjoy your freedom. Enjoy the fact that in this, at least, equal access is yours. And if you think you might read just a little too often sometimes? If you worry that you hoard books? If you think you’re silly for still fearing that you’ll run out sometime, even when you know better? Give yourself a break. Old habits die hard. It’s worth remembering where they came from.