As My Vision Deteriorates, Every Word Counts

Literature
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Reading became slower and rougher for me several decades ago, when a genetic ailment made the tiny center of my right retina start to crumble delicately away. I was forty-one. I’d published poems and was trying to learn to write stories. I had been a chain reader, unhappy at the end of a book until I started the next one. I continued to read, once I had acquired dedicated reading glasses with higher magnification than I needed simply to see the letters. Still, reading was more work than before. Because I put in the same effort for silly books as for literature, to reward the effort I needed the concision, freshness, and complexity of literature. I didn’t have the patience for fictional sentences that offered the same news three times: “‘I’m not interested,’ she said, wrinkling her nose and pushing the book away.” I wanted the writer to omit the repetition or complicate matters: “‘I’m not interested,’ she said, pulling the book closer.” 

Cover of Conscience by Alice Mattison

Even with the glasses, I could no longer enjoy some well-written books, those in which extravagant, mellifluous, unstinting sentences tumbled down the page, and the lushness was part of the point: Tristram Shandy, for example. I still could read dense books with long, involved sentences, but each phrase—as in Henry James—had to alter the meaning slightly: a Henry James character may indeed pull the book closer while claiming not to take an interest, maybe because the book belongs to someone whose every possession may enlighten the character about just what’s going on, whether what looks like love and generosity is real, or mere expedience. James’s attention to shades of meaning is often so keen you could make jokes about it if enough people had read him to understand; in What Maisie Knew, James seems to make fun of his style himself, when he writes about Maisie sizing up the motives of her father: “but if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision.” I could read that, and still can, and not just because “vision” is one of my favorite words. I could read James, who wrote extremely long paragraphs,  but I couldn’t read most authors who wrote paragraphs of a page or more: I needed little empty places to rest on the way up the mountain. I could read most books I wanted to read. 

All this time, I read and wrote poems and stories. I’d always read novels with particular pleasure. Writers converse through books; when I could read novels again, I wanted to respond in kind. I became a novelist.

Now a large central area in my right eye doesn’t see, and small blanks interrupt the vision of my good left eye. I can still read any letter of the alphabet, any word, even in fairly small print. Objects a few feet away are clear—a cup, a lemon, a knife—but the object to the right of the one I look at is missing, replaced by a gray blur, or the color of what’s beyond it. If I look straight at the cup, there’s no lemon. If I look at the lemon, I don’t see the knife. Same with the words I typed above. If I look at “a cup,” I can’t see “a lemon.” To read a sentence I take many looks, and may forget the beginning before I come to the end. Sometimes a word disappears into one of my visual gaps and I may not miss it for several sentences, until something doesn’t make sense.

To read with comprehension we need to see a bit of what’s coming, and not skip. I thought a headline about Senator Patrick Leahy concerned someone named Leah. I think a word is the last in a sentence, so my mind does that little dip-and-pause, but I’m reading about horse sense, not a horse, or a peach pie rather than a peach. Or I fail to see the end of a word, and then a pear turns into a pearl. I miss a punctuation mark and for “we visited; Glenda stayed home,” see “we visited Glenda” and wonder what staying home has to do with it. I try to figure out how apples connect to the topic, and how a noun just there might fit into the sentence, then give up and go back, to see the “i” that I missed when I first read “applies.” All those mistakes don’t happen at once. When my splotchy vision is not making me fail to grasp the point of an essay or fail to see the word “salt” in a recipe, it keeps me amused, keeps me aware of language itself. Who knew that “apples” is only one letter different from “applies”? Who could regret noticing that? 

Many of us remember books we’ve read in print more easily than those we’ve listened to or read on screen, if only because we see them lying around. 

Now it’s not merely opulent or sloppy books that can’t keep me reading. Because I will have to reread some sentences and paragraphs to follow the sense, a news story must tell me something surprising but comprehensible. If it’s obvious, I lose patience; if it’s at all involved and I’m not already curious, I abruptly realize that I haven’t paid attention for the last four paragraphs. As for books—especially novels, still my favorite reading—I cannot read longwinded repetitious authors even more emphatically than I couldn’t read them before, but I revel, even more than before, in longwinded authors who say something subtly different with each phrase. Recently I discovered that, with the patience that has come with being forced to read slowly, I can now enjoy some authors who write paragraphs several pages long, and not just Henry James; Rachel Cusk and Garth Greenwell turned out to be worth the trouble. I am sure I still couldn’t read a book that lacked paragraph breaks altogether. On the other hand, poetry is easy, with plenty of white space from which to launch the mind. Reading may be worth the trouble, but it’s trouble. I can’t read long enough to get eyestrain; I get brainstrain. Yet I keep buying books and reading them, not to mention writing them.

Why not audiobooks? Surely they’d help. I resist them as if listening to an audiobook would prove I can’t read, as someone with diminishing mobility might resist sitting down in a wheelchair even for a moment. (Many people who do not have eye trouble enjoy audiobooks; I know this.) I feel similarly about e-books; a pile of books that has been read represents accomplishment and evokes memory. Many of us remember books we’ve read in print more easily than those we’ve listened to or read on screen, if only because we see them lying around. 

Listening to an audiobook, I wouldn’t hear punctuation. True, an actor could produce the pauses, hesitations, and buildup that punctuation merely signals. But I like punctuation. I wouldn’t know whether the author had chosen a period or a semi-colon for the end of that main clause, wouldn’t know about em dashes, colons, parentheses, ellipses. Audiobooks are mediated. Another person would be present as I read. Worse, that person would have interpretive power, power over speed. Audiobooks happen in time, not space, like music or dance. Performance is indispensable but it isn’t the same as reading. 

I’ve lost what I too once had: knowing what the words mean without consciously seeing them.

Once we have truly learned to read, we don’t consciously see words, much less letters. If the words describe an event, we seem to find out what happened directly and all at once. We can’t not know, as we realize when our eyes and minds take in words we didn’t intend to read—a spoiler, a secret we’d rather not learn, a gruesome detail in a paragraph we planned to skip. We can’t decide to look at the first two words and not the others. A friend and I suspected that her pre-school son had taught himself to read but was keeping his new skill a secret. We weren’t sure until he walked down a staircase under a sloping roof in my house. The ceiling is a little more than five feet up, and I’d taped a sign on it: “Don’t bump your head.” Since he was only about four feet tall, he asked, “Why would I bump my head?” Reading was already so natural to him that he hadn’t noticed himself doing it.

Unlike him, when I read now, I know I’m reading. My thick reading glasses make it necessary to pull the book close. I can’t stop to chat because it’s so hard to find my place again. Nobody can come between me and my book. I’ve lost what I too once had: knowing what the words mean without consciously seeing them. I miss falling into a book as into a different place and time. I used to be aware only of the content, not of the act of reading. I still stubbornly consider myself someone who reads what she should: the books and articles I’ve been hearing about all my life or all this week, the story a friend loved. I try not to think about books I start and put aside, or don’t even start, no matter how curious I am. I’m more affected by this eye trouble than I like to admit. What’s happening to me can’t be described as good.

But when I read, insofar as I hear a voice, it’s mine. Though publication of a book means that many copies exist, and we all benefit from learning about the good ones, silent reading perfects solitude and solitary readers may get the most out of books. Good writers convey thoughts or observations so surprising that they seem new and personal: even if a book was written long ago, I experience it all by myself. I talk about books after I have read them, but while I’m reading, I want to keep them to myself, especially fiction, which is written intimately, as if addressed to one person who will understand and can be trusted. I cherish that privacy. Nobody knows what I have just read and that’s just the way it should be. When I read with my eyes—as I still do now—at that moment there is just one reader. Each book divulges itself only to me: only I—it seems—can love it as it should be loved. I live in blissful serial monogamy with each book that I can stand to read at all.

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