Reading Tolstoy in Braille

In my previous post, I mentioned that I finished my first novel in Braille and would soon begin my second feat: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Shortly after that post, the mailman rang my doorbell, and by the time I opened the door, all that was there were several big black packages all lined in a row on my doormat. Anna Karenina was here!

Tolstoy is known for his dense novels (War and Peace), and AK is no different: eight volumes of three-inch thick binders full of page after page of raised dots. It’s enough to drive a finger crazy.

My reading speed has not improved much since my last timing of myself–six minutes a page–but I’m keeping at it; my hope is to one day be able to read with my fingers as quickly as I was able to read with my eyes. I read every day, and I average about one volume every two weeks which, if my calculations are correct, means I read an average of thirteen pages a day which means I read for about an hour and twenty minutes per day…an hour and twenty minutes which I could spend working on my thesis. (This does not even include the time I spend listening to other books on audio–you can usually find me in the middle of reading two to five books at a time.)

Of course, as my first fiction instructor told me, you have to read in order to write. So I think of it as not just an enjoyment of literature but an exercise in craft–by observing how the literary masters put together their creative works of fiction, I can begin to shape and construct a piece of my own. Whether it’ll be my magnum opus is yet to be determined.

I started AK a little over two weeks ago, and I’m on p. 181/ch. 24. I’m not usually one to enjoy the classics–I much prefer contemperary and post-modern literature, but I am attempting AK because my professor, Robert Boswell (whose collection of short stories, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, was selected by Oprah as one of her notable summer reads in 2009) claims AK as perhaps the greatest novel ever written. I also found that because the novel is in Braille, I’m more willing to keep at it rather than give up. Had AK been an audio recording, I may have grown exhausted by some of the repetitiveness already (is it my translation?), but because I enjoy practicing Braille, I think I’ll manage to finish the whole novel. Same went for The Accidental Tourist which I did not like at all. If it had been in audio, I would’ve closed the door on that sucker long ago. Instead, I actually finished it. Perhaps a side effect of learning Braille is that I am also more consistent now at following through with things I’ve started. A sign of maturity? I hope so.,

I cannot say it enough, and so I must say it again: learning Braille has been such a fulfilling achievement for me, and I am now a huge advocate for promoting literacy to the sight-impaired. You really are not truly literate unless you can read Braille. Here are some resources on how to get started with Braille. I urge those of you who lost your vision to Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO or any other disease to not give up hope and your love of literature.

  • Hadley School for the Blind is a correspondence school which means you can take classes from the comforts of your own home. I first began learning Braille through their Braille Literacy courses here. They will send you the materials and lesson books by mail–all at a subsidized cost (read; FREE).
  • Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) is the state of Texas’ vocational rehabilitation center which helps those who are sight-impaired in Texas to become functional, independent, contributing individuals in society. This is where I finished out my Braille training through one-on-one lessons with a teacher. I found that I was much more motivated when there was someone there to push me rather than with a correspondence class. I would think every state has a state agency whose focus is on rehabilitating the blind and visually impaired; just google “vocational rehabilitation” and your state, and see what comes up.

You can read more about my adventures at my other blog.

Summer blues: Part deux

In the last blog post, I discussed the challenges of writing a thesis while trying to take care of my sinusitis. This is a continuation of my summertime blues.

Right now outside my home, I hear the mild pitter-pattering of raindrops on the street. This is a very good thing because Houston has not seen much of our friend Rain for the past several weeks. The heat and humidity has been sweltering with more days of 100-degree heat. (I have no idea how to convert that to Celsius for you non-Americans and am too sluggish to look it up.) I recently took a girls’ trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and while the days were hot, the nights were chilly, reminding me of that beloved Californian climate. But in Houston, it’s never cool during the summers. At night, it still feels like I’ve nestled into someone’s dank armpit.

You would think the humidity helps with the sinus issues, but since my last post, I’d finished two weeks of antibiotics and six days of steroids for the sinus pain/inflammation, and still, my head gets random throbs plaguing me mostly in the middle of the night. I have been talking to my PCP and two neurologists (Dr. Greenberg of the NMO Center in Dallas and Dr. Hutton, a MS specialist Dr. Greenberg had referred me to for local care). There have been guesses from migraines to cluster headaches to sinus issues to occipital neuralgia–from what I understand are mysterious shooting pains throughout the head caused by nerve damage and treated by neck injections–and that ever blasted shingles. Right now, my bet is that it’s a more serious sinus issue (which means I need to see a ENT) or cluster headaches (which means I’m screwed).

Dr. Hutton, whom I visited for the first time two weeks ago, ordered me some routine MRIs at the end of the month since I hadn’t had films taken of my brain and spine since 2007. He thought it’d be a good idea just to monitor how my nerves and plaques are doing. My goal now is to get them to scan my brain and sinus cavities while they’re in there anyway to save time and energy. Keeping my fingers crossed for a proper diagnosis of this ruthless head pain.

In the meantime, my creative writing projects have been trudging along rather slowly. Recently, I started writing for Houston Press‘s food and drink blog, Eating Our Words. The Houston Press is an alternative weekly like New York’s The Village Voice or the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I love to eat, cook, and talk food, and I love to write, so this was naturally an opportunity at which I jumped. But with the twice-a-week deadlines, my writing time is quickly being overtaken by food blogging.

I’ve also still been reading–I finished my first novel in Braille (woo hoo for me!): Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. I found the book very sub-par and was surprised upon finishing it to learn that it won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a Pulitzer finalist in 1985. Whaaa…? My husband told me that if I’m going to scorn such critically acclaimed writing, then I’d better win that Pulitzer with my future book. I say critics don’t know everything.

Either way, I’m proud of myself for having achieved my goal of reading an entire novel in Braille. That 352-page paperback translated into Braille became three three-inch binders. It took me two months to read it, which isnt’ bad considering one in four Americans don’t finish even one book in a year. But of course, as a writer, this is slow. My goal is to one day read Braille as fast as I used to read print. With practice comes perfection. When I started The Accidental Tourist, I was reading one page in eleven minutes. By the end of the novel, I managed to increase my reading speed to about six minutes a page. Next on my queue from the National Library Service is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I’m embarrassed to admit I have never finished. Hopefully by the end of this novel, I can shave down my minutes per page by half again.

I’m finally literate!

I’ve always loved to read. It’s no wonder that through a myriad of life experiences, I’ve finally found my calling, and that’s to be a writer. And as any [good] writer will tell you, you can’t write if you don’t read. When I began losing my vision about seven years ago due to NMO (Neuromyelitis Optica), I could not read the novels on my shelf anymore; normal-sized print was no longer accessible to my failing eyes. I had to magnify my mail with a handheld magnifier. My vision loss was gradual, and eventually, I had to move on to using a CCTV. This was around the time I had just decided to return to grad school for Creative Writing, and I studied for the GRE using a CCTV–talk about motion sickness from all the scrolling I had to do! Still yet my vision worsened to where now I mostly use screen readers to do all my work on the computer. I was well aware of the irony of my beginning a M.F.A. in creative writing while at the same time growing illiterate.

At a seminar for the blind and visually impaired, I heard a blind man say that true literacy could not be achieved by audiobooks, that true literacy is only done through Braille. Because someone else is reading the words to you in an audiobook, there is a filter of sorts–you’re not truly “reading” the words yourself. Their intonation, pronunciation, etc., affect your perception of the writer’s words, and thus, you are not truly reading. When the man said this, a little voice in the back of my head knew that I would have to one day learn Braille.

My pet project last summer was to begin learning Braille, so as soon as May came around, I started one-on-one lessons with a Braille teacher through the Division for Blind Services. By the end of August, I was right on track, having finished grade 1 of Braille (uncontracted Braille), where each letter of the alphabet is represented by a symbol using the six-dot Braille cell. I began grade 2 (contracted Braille), where all sorts of words and letter fragments (e.g. “the,” “there,” “and,” “-ment,” “-ong,” “-ation,” etc.) are represented by other symbols. There was a lot to learn (read: memorize) in contracted Braille! I finished the second book in my Braille program and borrowed a novel from the National Library Service in order to practice reading but I kept coming across symbols that I didn’t recognize. I called my Braille teacher, and it turned out there is a third book to the Braille series, and that he would have to special-order it for me. Apparently, there wasn’t a single copy in the office because nobody had gotten as far as the third book yet in this fairly new Braille method. I had to laugh: to think I am an overachieving nerd in all academic aspects of life.

Contracted Braille is self-teachable since each subsequent lesson builds upon the previous lessons, but there are just so many darn things to memorize! I just got to the end of all my lessons last month, and it felt really good. It seems like all I want to do lately is read Braille. I guess I really do love reading. I missed it, and I didn’t even know it until I started doing it again. Braille is something one has to practice daily or else lose it very quickly. Now I’m on to attempting The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler all in Braille. The novel comes in three four-inch binders. Wish me luck.