“On Becoming Illiterate” by New Zealand Author Lynley Hood

Photo of Lynley Hood

Guest blogger Lynley Hood, MSc LittD, lives in New Zealand. She is a scientist by training and a writer by occupation with a literary doctorate. Two of her four books have won New Zealand’s premier book award. In 2009, Lynley developed visual impairment that compromises her ability to read. You can learn more about Lynley’s background and work at her website and on her VisionAware Peer Advisor page.

The following post is excerpted from On Becoming Illiterate, a paper she presented at Thinking through Books, the 2012 conference of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, November 14-17, in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Sudden and Permanent Vision Loss

On 20 December 2009 I was reading in bed when my left eye went blurry. “Time to put the light out,” I thought. Next morning it was still blurry. I had lost the central vision in my left eye, suddenly and permanently. Then the vision in my right eye began to deteriorate.

The cause turned out to be a rare retinal disorder that goes by the acronym azoor (acute zonal occult outer retinopathy). There is no known effective treatment for azoor. The prognosis is uncertain.

In the weeks following that first episode, I considered my priorities and made a bucket list (“things to do while I can still see to do them”), but in those anxious early days a single desperate thought possessed me: “Gotta read all those books on my bedside table while I still can!” Later I considered more practical questions like “If I lose the central vision in my right eye as suddenly as I lost it in my left, can I find the right button on the phone to dial [an emergency number]?” But initially reading was all that mattered.

The Lost Pleasure of Reading Print

Reading used to be a pleasure. I used to scan, absorb, and retain reams of written material by what seems in retrospect like osmosis. Now reading ordinary print on ordinary paper feels like submitting myself to repeated episodes of aversion therapy. The contrast is poor from the outset, visual “static” builds up after a few pages, and – worse still – I make mistakes.

At first I thought the standard of proofreading had plummeted. I would be reading a newspaper, a book or a journal, only to be stopped short by the thought “this doesn’t make sense!” I would reread it five or six times. It still wouldn’t make sense. Then, when I return to it later, I discover that I have missed out a letter, a word, or a line in a well written piece of work.

I can still do a reasonable job of reading the eye chart. I can read my own work in large print because I already know what it says. I can read other documents in large print onscreen if they don’t go on for too long. But after a few pages of unfamiliar text in any format, I’m defeated.

Grieving a Loss and Rejecting Platitudes

During the first couple of years I was so devastated by my inability to read books that when well-meaning people told me how wonderful audio books were I wanted to hit them.

I’m suspicious of all the banality one hears about grief, but in preparation for this paper I bit the bullet and googled “grief acknowledgement” and found the results of a survey conducted by Slate. The report states:

Asked what would have helped them with their grief, the survey-takers talked again and again about acknowledgement of their grief. They wanted recognition of their loss and its uniqueness; they wanted help with practical matters; they wanted active emotional support. What they didn’t want was to be offered false comfort in the form of empty platitudes.

Exactly. To me, the notion that listening to audiobooks is an adequate substitute for reading print books is an empty platitude.

A Shared Frustration

I share my frustration with all New Zealand book lovers who are losing their sight. Compared to other disability groups, the approximately 100,000 New Zealanders with failing eyesight are remarkably silent. This is because getting through the day with low vision is so difficult that most people have no time or energy left to speak out.

However, public library staff who distribute reading matter to housebound people tell me that some visually impaired folk try audio books for a while and then say: I’d rather have nothing than listen to one of those.

As I grieve for the books I cannot read and try to make sense of my loss, I listen obsessively to audio books about print books. I have only recently discovered the online debate about the pros and cons of audiobooks. Prior to that discovery my knowledge of the subject came entirely from my own experience.

I’m not going to address issues of bad writing, abridgement or poor narration. These things can spoil audio books, but my problems are with well-written books read in unabridged form by good narrators, because they are the only sort of books I listen to.

My Problems with Audio Books

These are the problems I have with audio books:

  1. Lack of choice. Surveys in the United Kingdom have found that only five percent of the world’s literature is available in large print, braille, or audio format. The figures are probably worse for New Zealand. Most of the books I want to read are not available as audio books. Of those that are, a large proportion is exclusively for the use of the blind.
  2. Audio books are incredibly time consuming. It takes at least three times longer to listen to a book being read aloud as it does to read it on the page. So if you’re going to put in the time, the book had better be good. I loved Anna Karenina, but when faced with 38 hours and 20 minutes of listening, I decided that if I fell asleep and missed a bit, I didn’t care. Life is too short to spend it rewinding Anna Karenina.
  3. Audio books can be very soporific. I now set the Audible app on my iPhone to turn itself off after half an hour if I’m listening in bed – but you can’t get through many audio books if you only listen for half an hour a day. Of course you can fall asleep reading print books too, but at least you don’t lose your place, and if you do it’s easy to find it again.
  4. Audio books demand your undivided attention. You can’t even think “oh that was interesting” without missing something. That’s how I missed the name of a soldier in Bruce Catton’s marvelous book on the American Civil War. I continued listening as the narrator recounted colorful tales of derring-do, my ears pricked for the soldier’s name. It never came. There was no point in rewinding because I had no idea how far to rewind, and if I didn’t find his name on my first rewind I would have no idea whether to rewind further or to fast forward a bit. So I gave up.

You can read Lynley’s paper in its entirety at the Lynley Hood website. Please note that this post has been edited to reflect standard American English spelling.