Today on the blog, we have my fiancée, Brandon Cole! As some of you may or may not know, Brandon is completely blind. He has been since shortly after he was born due to retinoblastoma, a form of cancer. He has prosthetic eyes and I swear, I’m waiting to find one in my drink one day because I keep asking him to “Watch my drink”, when I have to leave it. A couple weeks ago, we had another blind book lover on this blog. One of our best friends, Riz Khan shared with us his experiences. You can check out his blog by clicking here. This blog, kinda spins from that one and I really hope you enjoy. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section. Brandon and Riz are always happy to answer any questions!
I will make no secret of the fact that the subject of this blog entry was inspired by another. The recent entry by Riz Khan made me consider my own experiences with reading, and as they are different even from his, I thought I would share them here. So try to put yourself in my shoes for just a second as I explain how reading affected my young life, and how it has grown to be a part of me.
Unlike Riz, I am totally blind, and have been since approximately 2 months after my birth. I started reading Braille when I was 3 years old, and learned little by little for the next several years after that. I knew I loved reading from the moment I could, as I got into the little tiny stories I was reading then in a big way. That wasn’t all, though. The stories I was reading were educating me. Oh certainly, stories have the power to educate all of us, but this was a different sort of education. Being blind, I had absolutely no visual concept for anything that I hadn’t directly come into contact with. Yet, as I read little stories, even something like “The Little Engine that Could,” my mind tried to figure out what a train looked like. When I finally got a toy train, one that was really small but did allow you to add and detach individual cars, that story, which I had read on a completely separate occasion, suddenly clicked home. I finally understood it as I hadn’t before, because now I had a model of the primary object in it.
I feel realizations like that were a major part of why I loved reading as a child. I understood the things I could learn, and I could learn those things while enjoying a good story at the same time, so I took advantage of that. There were some humorous images that my mind came up with as a result of reading certain books. Imagine little me reading “Charlotte’s Web,” and getting to the point where Charlotte spins words into the weaving of her web. Well, I hadn’t been working with the print versions of any letter or any word, I had been reading Braille. So my mind had enormous, silken versions of Braille letters instead of the print ones she was actually creating. It worked for me, though, and there was still a kind of mysticism about it.
Of course, there was a problem with loving to read, and being blind, at least back then. The primary source of reading material for the blind was Braille books, and for those who don’t know, Braille is HUGE. I heard it said once that 2 pages in print will approximately equal 5 in Braille, and that’s about right. In some cases, even more Braille pages were required to make just a few print ones. In Braille, there are no font sizes. Everything is the same, incredibly large size. This resulted in storage issues, of course, but I did the best I could. I didn’t want to get rid of any of my books. Ironic how I don’t have any of them now, huh?
In any case, fast forward a few years, and you reach the point where I truly discovered audio books. Initially, I had 2 sources for those. I was given this monstrous tape recorder by the National Library Service for the Blind, which played special 4-track tapes recorded at half of normal tape speed to get as much audio on the tape as possible. They also sent me their own branded record player, which pretty much did the same thing with records. Not long after that, though, my Dad started noticing my reading interest, and also noticing that our interests were similar even then in terms of genre. He started taking me to the library, where I checked out commercial audio books. (The books produced by the national library service were all read by volunteer, and thus unprofessional narrators). I got a taste of how much of a performance art audio books could be, and I was hooked.
I went to the library with him every 3 weeks, and only with that amount of time between each visit because that’s how long I got to keep the books I checked out. He introduced me pretty early on to the adult fiction section, feeling I was mature enough to handle higher-level books than my own grade level. Turns out, I was. It’s true that, having read certain books years later that I read back then, I understand them better now, but I could handle them even then. In fact, that’s about the time I found my favorite author, Stephen King.
Audio books, even books on tape, were still smaller than Braille ones. This meant less storeage required to own them than Braille, which meant I could own more. So, being the genius I was, I started asking for those for Birthday and Christmas gifts, alon with the other crazy and expensive stuff I always asked for. I still got them, though, mostly from my Dad who understood what books to get me. I now don’t have most of those either. In fact, the only ones I do have represent the next phase of my book growth. I still have ALL the books that were given to me on CD. Yes, an even smaller format, even more compact storeage, it was an audiobook lover’s dream… almost.
Let’s move to the present, shall we? Oh I had already read a lot of books, already absorbed a lot of stories, and found a lot of authors I liked, but if you compare now to even just about 10 years ago, it’s like night and day. Blind people, like a good portion of the world, have pretty much completely been absorbed by the digital revolution. Braille books have fallen into a state of uncommonness because there are now so many other ways to access material. A web site dedicated to bringing books to the blind in digital text form was created, and on top of that, Apple made their commitment to accessibility, and by doing so, flung open the doors of commercial ebooks to us as well.
And that’s not all. I found Audible.com, a place that removes my need to buy books on CD by selling those same commercial audio books in digital audio, and giving you access to them at anytime, eliminating the worry about your own personal disc space. More than that, that same national library service, providers of the monstrous tape recorder, are also now working in digital format, giving me access to their audio books via a simple USB thumb drive. You still have to use their proprietary player, and interestingly enough, it’s still kinda unnecessarily big, but believe me, it’s nothing to their old tape recorder. Best of all, they’ve started working with some of the commercial audio book publishers, so now not everything is read by a monumentally horrible volunteer. And OK, to be fair, even their volunteers have gotten better too. They have people I actually recognize from other things narrating for them now, which is good to hear.
The point is, thanks to all this, my early exposure, my realizations about reading, my Dad’s help, my audio book collection, and the digital revolution, I have now reached a stage where I can have something to read all the time, and tons more in the queue, just waiting to be read, just like any other book addict. Reading has grown and grown from something I liked, to something I loved, to something that’s a part of who I am. I still learn, I still imagine, and I can feel my understandin and knowledge growing with each and every book I read. I can’t really express how glad I am that this has become possible, and that, at least as far as books go, I am free to enjoy to my heart’s content.
I genuinely hope this hasn’t been too long-winded, and that it’s given someone, anyone, more insight than they may have had before on the evolution of books, and most especially how it has affected people like me. I think it’s fair to say that I showed up at the right time. I believe my love of reading would’ve continued to grow even if my ways to access books did not, and had I shown up in this world a bit earlier, I would have lived as a tormented soul, longing to read more but unable to. This is not the case, though, and for that I’m thankful. Thank you to all who read this. Now go read something awesome. Like, ya know… a book.
Check out Brandon’s website! http://www.brandoncole.net