Digital books may not be for everyone. But for blind people, they’re a true revolution
Historically, only a tiny proportion of published books have made it into braille. But now technology means no book is off limits
The book, not just as a source of knowledge or entertainment, but as an intrinsically pleasing object, is a familiar theme. Indeed, it came up yet again in this newspaper’s letters pages earlier this week. The point of this latest diatribe against the rise of the ebook was that physical books leave a trace, can be passed on, enhance a room, rekindle (no pun intended) a memory. And yet for most of my life, voracious and indiscriminate book reader though I am, the printed book has been nothing but a tease: a will-o’-the-wisp holding out what might be possible, only to snatch it away as soon as I reach for it.
The perversity comes in my reaching for it at all. I was born blind, and reading for me has always meant braille. I’ve had much fun and satisfaction from books, but they are the one case where I’ve not been able to adhere to my rule of not mourning what I couldn’t have. With only a tiny proportion of books published available in braille – well under 1% – the world’s literature was not so much offered up to you as dangled in front of you. To be fair, the classics were there – like the Desert Island Discs castaways, we had Shakespeare and the Bible, the latter stretching over more than a hundred volumes, thanks to the bulk of braille books – but not what kids want to read. To illustrate, my blind school’s braille library had one Famous Five book, one Billy Bunter, one Just William and, as I grew older, one PG Wodehouse and one James Bond.
It was a subtle form of torture: just enough to suck you in, no chance to do that reader’s thing of devouring the whole canon, start to finish, in an orgy of excess. And this is where my love-hate relationship with the printed book, and the bookshop, starts. I remember going into them with my mum, running my fingers along the shelves, letting the edges of pages slip through my fingers. Was this, perhaps, Five Go Bungee-Jumping, or William and the Outlaws Learn to Rap? It’s been no better since I’ve been an adult, although instead of Blyton, Crompton and Frank Richards, I’ve obsessed about the latest Sebastian Faulks, tacky bonkbuster or political biography. I have all the sensory hankerings of the book-lover – the smell of the paper; the satisfying crack of opening a new book; the pleasingly rounded feel of the spine – with none of the satisfaction of reading them.
I suppose at this point I had better forestall the avalanche of suggestions from puzzled wellwishers, wondering that I have not heard of the talking book. I have, of course, and very good some of them are – but it’s not reading, is it? Yet there’s good news. This column is not to be a sustained whinge. There is a happy ending.
I have just spent much of my holiday browsing in bookshops – and not as a form of self-flagellation, but looking for books I am actually going to be able to read. The much-maligned technological revolution has come up with the answer I thought I would never live to see: braille books, virtually on demand. It’s now possible, with the right combination of hardware and software, to buy a book at 9am, scan it page by page, then use a screen-reader to render it either into synthetic speech, or into braille, and be reading it by lunchtime.
If this were all, it would be a great advance; but you don’t have to be tied to the computer to read your book. You can download it on to a flash card, which you can insert into a portable braille reader. Result: hundreds of books on each tiny card, at the touch of a button. Again, I know this is not new. It’s been around for at least 15 years. But I am a natural luddite, and have had to go through the four stages of finding out about it, learning to believe that it had anything to do with me, figuring out physically how to do it, and finally allowing it to revolutionise my life.
There are drawbacks, some of which I’ll come to, but just let me glory for a little longer in the freedom to browse at all. I am now a familiar figure in the bookshops of Winchester, especially the secondhand ones, of which we’re lucky enough to have quite a few. It has to be mainly secondhand ones, because like a kid in a sweetshop, particularly a kid who wasn’t allowed sweets for a long time, I am in danger of gorging myself and making myself sick. Secondhand is the only way of keeping my spending under some sort of control.
I suspect I’m not a universally popular browser. I need a companion to find the right section, to read titles and reviews and maybe even the beginning of the book – all the things typical browsers do, but not aloud. I don’t find secondhand bookshops stuffy – there’s a camaraderie among book hunters – but even so, I sometimes feel the growing disapproval of the quiet carriage on the train: “We’ll stand one phone call, but not three.”
I’m quite happy with my companion-in-chief, a book-loving son who over the years has patiently read and precised books for me, and is now trying to decide whether the role of browser- and scanner-in-chief is more or less arduous. Over the past couple of weeks, in the delightful disordered anarchy that is secondhand bookshops, I’ve managed to pick up everything from a cultural survey of the Weimar republic to a treatise on goalkeeping, via biographies as disconnected as Marie Antoinette and Kim Philby, Rudyard Kipling and Jimmy Hoffa; try out authors whose names have caught my fancy in reviews, such as Alison Lurie and Marian Keyes; and make random decisions about what I read, rather than have those decisions made for me by the equally random whim of the committee that decides what is put into braille. Suddenly, I can pursue impulses, such as my search for Cynthia Asquith’s ghost stories, or a decent account of the South Africans in England in 1955, the first cricket test series I can dimly remember following.
It’s not perfect yet. Scanning books page by page is tedious; variations of type and print size can often produce equally variable results, which require skilful editing to make legible; and every time someone upgrades software or changes an operating system, you find yourself back at square one. With books being produced electronically as a matter of course, publishers, authors and agents could be much more helpful. Surely a way of making digital versions of books available to blind people prepared to pay for them, or borrow them under clearly defined conditions, could be devised without bringing down the publishing industry in an explosion of piracy?
While we wait for the publishers and the blind organisations to get their fingers out, we blind readers take matters into our own hands, passing our scanned books quietly among ourselves like kids with drugs on street corners. But hey! For a few of us lucky enough to have the equipment, the money and the help, things are so much better today. Now it’s me who is able to take as many books on holiday as I like, all packed on those little cards, while my wife has to limit herself to three or four paperbacks. The days of War and Peace in 21 braille volumes, slipping the postman’s disc as he staggers up the path, are nearly over.