Braille books see the light

New scanning technology means more books could be available in Braille. (David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters)

New scanning technology means more books could be available in Braille. (David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters)

The book, not just as a source of knowledge or entertainment but also as an intrinsically pleasing object, is a familiar theme. The point often made against the rise of the e-book is that physical books leave a trace, they 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 have had much fun and ­satisfaction from books, but they are the one case where I have not been able to adhere to my rule of not mourning what I could not have. With only a tiny proportion of books published available in Braille — well less than 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 — 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 children 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 mom, 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 has been no better since I have been an adult, although instead of Blyton, Crompton and Frank Richards, I have obsessed about the latest 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 well-wishers, wondering whether I have not heard of the talking book. I have, of course, and very good some of them are — but it is not reading, is it? Yet there is good news. This article 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 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 is 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 Braille and be reading it by lunchtime.

If this was all, it would be a great advance, but you do not have to be tied to the computer to read your book. You can download it to a flashcard, 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 has 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 how to do it and, finally, allowing it to revolutionise my life.

There are drawbacks, some of which I will 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 the city of Winchester in southeast England, especially the second-hand ones, of which we are lucky enough to have quite a few. It has to be mainly second-hand ones, because like a child in a sweet shop, particularly one who was not allowed sweets for a long time, I am in danger of gorging myself and making myself sick. Second-hand is the only way of ­keeping my spending under some sort of ­control.

I suspect I am not a universally popular browser. I need a companion to find the right section, read titles and reviews and maybe even the beginning of the book — all the things typical browsers do, but not aloud.

I do not find second-hand bookshops stuffy — there is 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 am quite happy with my companion in chief, a book-loving son who over the years has patiently read and summarised books for me and is now trying to decide whether the role of browser and scanner in chief is more or less arduous.

Freedom to choose
Over the past few weeks, in the delightful disordered anarchy that is second-hand bookshops, I have managed to pick up everything from a cultural survey of the Weimar Republic to a treatise on goalkeeping and biographies as disconnected as Marie Antoinette and Kim Philby, Rudyard Kipling and Jimmy Hoffa. I can try out authors whose names have caught my fancy in reviews 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 a decent account of the South Africans in England in 1955, the first cricket Test series I can dimly remember following.

It is 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 teens 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 much better today. Now I can take as many books on holiday as I like, all packed on those little cards, whereas 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.

— © Guardian News & Media 2012

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Tablet: The Changing Landscape of Print is chaired by Nic Dawes, with a panel of Terry Morris, Verashni Pillay and Ben Williams on Saturday September 1, from 2.30pm to 4pm at the Market Theatre. To book, go to the online booking form

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