For sighted people who love to read and who have no reading barriers, for instance, economic hardship or learning disability, reading on paper or reading or listening electronically is a basic choice. For the blind child and then adolescent who loved braille and was of a certain generation–mine–reading choice was taken away, then gradually reinstated in degrees.
As a small child, I could listen to or read books from the library. I didn’t notice until years later that sound recordings, in general, were usually much more likely to be available. I just enjoyed the books. Once in a while, my mom and I would spend a Saturday morning boxing up library books I had pretended I owned, and she would drive the boxes to the post office. “You better be rich when you grow up,” she would say, “so you can have a house with an edition to store all of your books.” This was the late 80s and early to mid 90s, when electronic braille was just starting to be imagined and when most people couldn’t read books with it yet.
In sixth grade, my braille teacher–now generally just called TVI–and I had “the talk.” The “actually after a certain age, you don’t have the braille choice anymore” talk. Braille books were too big, they take up too much space, you don’t “need” this, you “want” this. I could continue to have braille for math and foreign languages. Literature if they were feeling generous that year. Science almost never. Social studies never. Perhaps as a consolation, she got me several plays and a book of Greek mythology in braille, which I read voraciously along with everything else I was reading.
My introduction to audio textbooks was the worst introduction ever, a sixth grade grammar book. Despite this, I became an audiobook poster child of sorts. I was fortunate to present the 1992 Alexander Scourby Award in narration of children’s literature to Barbara Caruso. Later I joined Recording for the Blind’s consumer advisory council and testified for the need for audiobooks before the NJ Joint Budget and Appropriations Subcommittee. After all, if we had no braille and no audio, how and what would we read?
But I still read literature, whether I could get it in braille or on tape. I called the library for the blind, and the patient children’s librarian, probably a little tired since I usually called before closing, sent me the books I requested, read me summaries of books she thought I might enjoy, and encouraged me to read and read and read. I did not read every book that showed up at my house, but I read a lot. I have fond visceral memories of my favorite books, some in audio, some in braille. I remember William Blake’s Selected Poems and Letters as a beautifully old, soft-cover book which had a wonderful smell of dust and many readers. I remember schlepping volumes of Ulysses across campus. I remember the beautiful voices of NLS and Learning Ally narrators who brought me Little by Little and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Namesake and The Human Commedy.
I think of my life in book eras. Junior high and high school: you get what you get, and you don’t get upset. College: similar, but sometimes braille ended up being easier for them to make. Graduate school: cassettes had given way to audio CDs, hardcopy braille and recordings from the disabilities office changed into electronic files. On braille notetaking computers I was now downloading books to read. On my phone or the Victor Reader Stream, I was listening to books I was
downloading. I don’t know the librarians in the NLS library. Learning Ally doesn’t really have librarians.
I had also learned another hard truth about braille. Books for children were considered to be of paramount importance, so nonprofit organizations worked hard to make hard copies affordable, offsetting the transcribing and material costs with generous donations. Even so the number of hardcopy children’s books to keep was limited. I was and am inordinately fortunate to have a friend and mentor who transcribes the “off the shelves” braille books I want to read to my kids, as long as the braille will fit in the book, which is a parameter she and I both set after a few trials of bigger books. But if you wanted to own a hardcopy braille book that was not actually made, it could cost hundreds of dollars. I looked this up perhaps twice. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: something like two or three hundred dollars. The Complete Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne: something like $850, and that was before inflation. You can imagine that after I found out about that one, I couldn’t bear to look up the cost of any more braille adult custom projects.
Then, a week and a half ago, I found out about the “braille on demand” program. Essentially, patrons can choose five books–any books in the library collection, children or adult–per month and receive the braille copies for free. As Dr. M. Leona Godin pointed out to me in her Facebook post advertising the project, she could hold a hard copy of Their Plant Eyes: a Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, the book she wrote, that she could read in her hands.
I immediately ordered my novel, Outside Myself, and a book of William Blake poetry. After considerable thought, I added an Italian language book, Household Words by Joan Silber, one of my former creative writing instructors and a current friend and mentor, and Dubliners by James Joyce. Next month, I’m thinking Rumi, Langston Hughes, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Helen Keller or John Hull or Robert Russell, and Jacquelyn Mitchard?I want a cookbook, because it’s more practical to read a paper book than to cook with a braille display nearby, but the cookbook I want is thirty volumes.
My husband, James, was also entitled to five books. He chose Across Five Aprils by Irine Hunt, Have Dog Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto and an English translation of the Koran, which he thought was unattainable. He gave the remaining two books to the kids, so I chose Madeline stories and, of course, The Complete Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh.
For the first time in my life, I want gorgeous, unaffordable hardwood bookcases. I’m not rich by any stretch, but I do have a quirky house with a couple of parts of rooms which *might* work for containing a personal library. I want to eventually gather a collection that combines classics, contemporary literature and disability/blindness memoirs into one space. I imagine a braille museum, a peaceful place where I and all of the braille paper booklovers of the world–the many, many, right?–can just sit in this peaceful place and read. Not for the first time in my life, my wanting exceeds practicality.
I hope, as a braille teacher myself, never to tell my students they don’t have a choice when it comes to reading format. I hope someday to help more tangibly with this program and other library programming. And … books, books, books! Thank you, NLS!