A visual medium

I just finished reading Helen Keller’s autobiography. I love two kinds of books: those which explore new worlds; and those which explore our own world from a viewpoint substantially different to my own. This book certainly qualifies for the latter category. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads.

This autobiography is split into two sections. The first, evidently written while she was still quite young, covers the first twenty or so years of her life. What comes through strongest is her love of life and her determination not to let her blindness and deafness hold her back. The effort and patience involved (both for her and her teacher Mrs Sullivan) in not only learning to read, write and speak, but to do so in several languages (she learnt French, German, Latin and Greek) and to attend a “normal” university alongside seeing, hearing women is amazing.
The second is a series of articles covering different aspects of her perception of the world, and this for me was more interesting, as it was the main thing I really wanted to know about her. She has a sharp and perceptive mind and is adroit at using metaphors and analogies both to describe her own situation and to try to comprehend ours (seeing and hearing, as she understands them).
Her prose can sometimes be a little purple and effusive, which may be either a product of her time or a reflection of her literary preferences. Occasionally I found it distracting, but mostly it was just a case of getting used to it. I wasn’t too keen on her poetry, though.
I’d be interested to read something else, maybe more contemporary, on the topic.

The advantage of books like this is that after reading them you see the world around you a little differently. I started thinking about the nature of books themselves, and how my experience of reading isn’t all that different than Helen Keller’s. After all, books aren’t really a visual medium, are they?

Leaving aside the obvious exception of illustrated books my point is that, for all their visual and tactile pleasures, books don’t communicate their ideas through their visual aspect. Although the experience differs in some ways, listening to someone read the text out to you will have pretty much the same result as looking at it with your own eyes. The printed text is a delivery format, a way of transmitting ideas from the writer’s mind into that of the reader.

Compare it to the other arts: you can’t remove the audio component from music, or the visual component from painting, or the sense of taste or touch from gastronomy (if we consider that to be an art, for the sake of argument). The reader of a book is deaf, blind, cannot taste or smell or feel the world the writer creates and must have it laboriously spelled out by the author as they lead us by the hand through their creation. When we read a book, we are all Helen Keller.


5 thoughts on “A visual medium

  1. Erik R. November 13, 2014 / 2:10 pm

    Very insightful. Stories, really the ideas that make them up, are entirely mental.

    Was her prose limited to adjectives describing touch, taste, emotions and passage of time?


    • simonlitton November 13, 2014 / 2:12 pm

      No. You’d never guess from the way she wrote that she was deaf and blind. As she explains, she can grasp the ideas behind certain visual metaphors, so it doesn’t make sense for her to avoid those words, especially since they’ll have more meaning for her readers.


    • Erik R. November 13, 2014 / 2:17 pm

      Yeah, I just looked her up. Amazing that she died only weeks before her 88th birthday.


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