This is A Blind Writer’s Notebook, a monthly column by M. Leona Godin about her experiences as a writer and the monolithic trope of blindness.
This week, I had the honor of speaking with Jim Knipfel, author of three memoirs, including Slackjaw, which grew out of his long-running column of the same name, several novels, including The Buzzing and Residue, and a collection of short stories delightfully titled These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and Other Fairy Tales. He was gracious enough to talk to me not about his darkly humorous writing, but about his reluctant acceptance of technology as he’s lost his sight.
Jim has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic degenerative eye disease that is cousin to my own cone rod dystrophy. Whereas I lost my central vision first, his vision loss came at him from the periphery, rendering his vision an ever more constricted tunnel vision, until it was all gone. I freely admit envy of this classic form of RP, because, although we’re in the same blind place now, Jim and others like him are generally able to read throughout much of their lives, whereas I lost the ability to read normal print as a young teenager. This greatly reduced the number and kinds of books I was able to access.
I first encountered Jim’s writing when I was living in New Orleans, twenty-five, and visually impaired—a high partial as they call them in the biz. Back then, I could mostly get around okay and looked perfectly normal. I just couldn’t read letters less than about forty-point font and used a CCTV to blow books up much bigger than that. My friend Gigi lived in the apartment under which Tom Waits sings drunkenly in Down By Law, and was a cool New York chick who, when I told her about my visual impairment, immediately recognized it as familiar. She lent me several New York Press issues she’d brought with her, and told me to look for the Slackjaw column.
I took the papers home, put them under the camera that threw the print up onto the screen into giant white on black letters (to reduce glare), and read, for the first time, a first-person narrative that sounded kind of like my own. Here was the strange world of visual impairment with a badass attitude and a predilection for self-destructive behavior and booze, to which I could heartily relate.
Next to my giant CCTV sat my desktop computer with its screen-reading software. Because of my need, I was quick to embrace technology, so it comes as a great surprise to me that not every blind person feels the same way.
Jim is a self-proclaimed Luddite. He told me, “In general, as much as I despise and fear technology—just in general, and just by nature—I couldn’t work without it, so it's been a real lifesaver.”
When I asked him if he’s reconciled himself to this clash between his hatred of, and reliance on, technology, he emphatically said, “No, no, no. With each stage, I’m still dragged in kicking and screaming, and I feel filthy after giving in. But I eventually get used to it, like the frog in the pan of boiling water.”
There can be little doubt that snobbery regarding ebooks exists in the literary world, as if they are somehow less real or genuine than physical books, an attitude stated in a Guardian opinion piece, “ Books are Back. Only the Technodazzled Thought They Would Go Away ,” which opens with this hook: “The hysterical cheerleaders of the ebook failed to account for human experience, and publishers blindly followed suit. But the novelty has worn off.” Apparently, for the Guardian author, only his way of reading—holding a print book to his eyes—is real: “Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen.”
Though the Guardian opinion piece is an extreme version, the trend against ebooks seems clear. Screen fatigue, and the growing backlash against electronic books in favor of physical books on the one hand, and audiobooks on the other, was one of the hot topics at the 2018 London Book Fair, as reported by a Publishers Weekly article, “ Publishing in the Mid-Digital Age .” The article quoted Hachette UK CEO David Shelley as saying “‘there’s a very real possibility that audio could be one of the biggest parts of our business.’”
As someone who listened to many Audible books a number of years back, and whose first experience with alternate types of reading came in the form of tape cassettes, I cannot knock that method of reading, though it has not been my preferred for several years. Readers can be to our liking or not, but even in the best case, they still provide an interpretation of a book that colors our understanding. And, in the worst case, as Jim put it, “a bad human reader can just destroy a book for you.” He continued, “I have the only two official releases of Henry Miller— Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn— and they are read by a Brit!”
Besides casting mishaps, I prefer digital books because I can easily refer to the text—read letter by letter to check spelling, or word by word for understanding. But this is simply my preference, as I know many blind readers who listen to audiobooks at least as frequently as they read ebooks, and often choosing is simply a matter of what’s available.
“I’m a total Bookshare kid, mostly because I still prefer to read my books in Braille,” Caitlin Hernandez, my writing-group buddy and blind Millennial source, told me. “BookShare is the most seamless way to download them in a format which looks passably nice on a Braille display.”
As someone who lived through the Dark Age of books on tape via snail mail, I’m envious of the blind kids who have never known the difficulties of accessing books before the world went digital. But it turns out that Caitlin has also witnessed the difference: “I did a ton of page-by-page scanning in high school, mostly because there were virtually no LGBT young-adult books available in either audio or Braille. I was so hungry for these books; I scanned all the Julie Anne Peters books and Alex Sanchez books . . . and then they showed up on BookShare, like, a month after all my hard labor. But I wouldn't change it!”
Interestingly, Caitlin surprised me with a little Ludditism of her own:
“I’m definitely one of those people who, if I had my way, would still be reading hard copy Braille. In effect, I’m that person who refuses a Kindle and reads nothing but paperbacks. Of course, I’ve been reading electronically since about age eleven, because it was a necessity, but, at heart, I’m not a techy reader and would rather be on the couch turning pages than scrolling.”
This is my point: Blind and print-handicapped readers do not have the luxury of deciding whether they will go old-school and deny the digital age. Braille books and audiobooks have limited publishing potential built-in because of their high production costs, but when it comes to publishing electronically, it’s the attitudes rather than the costs that are limiting.
Granted, we can always get ahold of a hardcopy book and scan it, but this takes a long time and does not always work perfectly. For academics, who often have to read obscure texts, such as my friend Timothy Allen in the philosophy department at University of Cincinnati, scanning must necessarily sometimes happen. “There are quite a few books that I need to have scanned, which can be problematic, if the only print copy I can find has underlining or annotations in it.”
Even today’s super-efficient OCR software gets all choked up with the underlining and marginalia of an over-exuberant previous reader. Sometimes this can render the document incomprehensible, making it necessary to go through the text with a sighted reader anyway.
Timothy is only five years into vision loss and so all this accessibility technology is new to him. He told me that “the first year was hell.” “Vision loss doesn’t come with an instruction manual.”
Like me, Timothy submits his work to literary journals, and has run into accessibility issues. “To deal with problems that arise, I send them private emails, explaining the situation, and the contact person generally obliges me.”
Although contacting journals about accessibility issues takes time and energy away from actual writing, there is no doubt that it can be gratifying. In a recent exchange with The Georgia Review, I learned that they are working on developing a platform for disseminating their digital version. The developer even asked if he could contact me as they worked to implement their ideas, to make sure they are accessible. I gladly agreed. That kind of exchange is growing more common, and it is heartening. Having access to top-notch literary magazines is an important component of the writerly life.
There’s a moment In Slackjaw when, “in the face of the inevitable,” Jim decides it’s time to give away his books:
“Over the years my library had been a reference tool for the few folks I would call my friends. They would ask me a question, and even if I did not have the answer handy, I knew it could be found someplace on the shelves, and I usually knew where to find it. Looking for the date Bruno Hauptmann was executed? I have that. Want to know how different translators have handled Nietzsche’s nastier side? Here, let me show you.
“If I couldn’t see, if I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do that anymore. Those books would only mock me. The first editions, the autographed volumes, none of them could represent anything but a deep sadness to me anymore.”
I find this passage heartbreakingly sincere in a book that is otherwise pretty irreverent and devoid of sentimentality, so I asked Jim if he actually did dismantle his library. It turned out that he had a little help. His previous apartment was in a basement and flooded several times, destroying about three-quarters of his books.
“What’s left is what was salvaged,” Jim told me. “I still have most of my favorite things.”
“So you still fetishize the physical book,” I asked, “even though you can’t access it?”
I can relate. Through my grad school years, I collected lots of print books. It took me a long time to finally get rid of them, and though it was sad (and having now moved across the country, necessary), I sometimes need to remind myself that the books are still with me—most of them painstakingly scanned into my computer. A library is a wonderful thing only insofar as the books are taken in hand and read.
I would not trade those shelves of books for the thousands— Slackjaw amongst them—I have on my computer, that I can return to again and again.
To prioritize the physicality of a book over its contents is to suggest that I can never be as good a reader as my sighted counterpart. Additionally, as a writer, exposure to lots of books and lots of kinds of literature is vital to my craft. For these reasons, I will continue to cheerlead the digital age and the ebooks it spawned, until every book that is available to the average voracious sighted reader is available to me. I don’t mind being called “techno-dazzled” in the process.