Whispers in the dark: What does it mean to be blind?
Out on July 18 from Penguin Press, the book mixes memoir and reportage with fascinating dips into everything from the development of Braille to the history of the blind civil rights movement.
In 2019, Andrew Leland began writing a book about blindness, even as he was going steadily blind himself.
Working as his vision deteriorated gave him an insider’s perspective — who better to write about the blind than the blind? — but, as he learned, also made writing and reporting the book something of a trial.
He’d jot down notes with fat-tipped pens during interviews so he could more readily see what he was writing; later, he used a six-button Braille display, an electronic note-taking tool that he was still mastering. “When I downloaded my notes onto my computer,” he recalled, “it looked like I had a bottle of scotch before writing them.” At first, he figured his experience made for the perfect story arc: He would start the book sighted, and end it when he was blind. But that plan soon fizzled. How would Leland know when he was really blind? As he notes in the book, only about 15 percent of blind people have absolutely no light perception; most see something, like Leland, whose peripheral vision is now less than 6 percent of a full visual field. If he waited until he was completely blind, he thought, he might be 80, “still hanging on to eight photons of vision, going, ‘Well, I can’t write it yet.’”
Leland plowed ahead and finished his book, “The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight,” in three years. Out on July 18 from Penguin Press, the book mixes memoir and reportage with fascinating dips into everything from the development of Braille to the history of the blind civil rights movement. James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges and Henri Matisse also make appearances.
The memoir confronts many questions, chief among them: What does it mean to be blind in a world that often defines blindness as the worst thing that could possibly happen? “Blindness presents itself at first as this intractable disaster, that all the things you loved are now taken away from you, and there’s no way to get them back,” Leland said. “The reality is, they’re not gone. You just have to figure out a workaround.”
Leland was in middle school when he realized that he could barely see at night. In college, a doctor told him he had retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable disease, and that he could expect to have decent daytime vision into his 30s, but when middle age hit, his peripheral vision would rapidly erode until all he could see would be a tiny spot straight in front of him. In 2009, when Leland was working as an editor at The Believer, a literary magazine based in San Francisco, he met Lily Gurton-Wachter, then a doctoral candidate in comparative literature. The two fell in love. When Leland proposed to her, he half-jokingly asked, “You remember I’m going blind, right?”
Gurton-Wachter, now a literature professor at Smith College, plays an important role in Leland’s memoir, as does their son Oscar, now 10. She appears in many of the book’s best scenes, including one in which a boorish guest at a dinner party — a dad whom Leland describes as “looking like an L.L. Bean model” — begins asking a series of invasive questions about how Leland felt about being blind. Then, he asks Gurton-Wachter what it was like having a husband who was losing his vision.
The writer is a journalist with NYT©2023