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A Different Digital


I love reading with my fingers. I'm not blind, but I am, weirdly, an avid Braille reader. I learned it years ago, when I had a blind roommate. Actually, I learned it visually first, because the dots cast these tiny shadows that make it possible to see them in the light. (Think of a country of igloos as seen from an airplane on a sunny morning in the Arctic.) It took me about a year to master the hundreds of configurations of dots that make up the letters, punctuation, composition signs and contractions of Braille. And then, a few years after that, as though of their own volition, my fingers started gravitating toward those dots, trying them, plying them, and eventually I began reading Braille tactilely. I've been reading it with pleasure—physical pleasure—ever since.

Reading with my fingers—reading digitally, if you will—slows me down, in a good way. It's a good thing. As a writer, and a reader, it's one of the ways I maintain contemplation, focus, and sanity in this digital age we all live in. On the subway, for instance, while most if not all of my fellow passengers are hopelessly—blindly—hooked up to their smartphones and tablets, I sit there with 40 bound pages of embossed Braille in my lap, serenely reading the latest issue of Syndicated Columnists Weekly with my right index finger, blithely scanning the poor doomed plugged-in ridership with my eyes wide open.

I like the idea of touching the words. I know that's just a romantic notion—I mean, Braille readers aren't more "in touch" with the words than print readers are—but I like it nonetheless. Though it took me some time to develop the sensitivity required to read with my fingers, I don't think Braille has made me a more sensitive reader per se. But it has made me a more versatile one: I can read with my eyes closed; I can read with the book closed (my hand tucked inside it, reading); I can read in the dark when my wife wants to go to sleep and has turned off the light; I can read in the dentist's chair while he's drilling away; I can read while walking; I can read while driving—left hand on the wheel, right hand on the dots, eyes on the road—eyes on the road!

I used to worry that people who saw me reading Braille in public, on the subway, say, or in a Starbucks, would think I was blind or pretending to be blind. A sighted person reading Braille, after all, is a rare sight, wouldn't you say? So, for a long time I was in the closet about my Braille reading. I only read at home, or in my car. Or, if I ventured out in public with my Braille, I would read it furtively, sort of cloak-and-dagger, Braille-in-coat-pocket, keeping it hidden under my jacket or inside my knapsack, fingering the dots clandestinely, feeling somehow vaguely illicit about the whole thing. At the Starbucks, for example, I would build a little fort on the table around my Braille magazine—backpack, cup of coffee, folded sweater, water bottle—ramparts surrounding the treasure of the dots, hiding the Braille so that no one would see me reading it and mistake me for a blind person, or a blind impostor, or a blind wannabe.

I am not a blind wannabe. But I do love Braille. I love the physicality of it. There's something deeply satisfying about using your sense of touch to access language, knowledge, the world. And I love the irony of choosing it—preferring it—over the digital technology that is everywhere around us shouting its claims of "the world at your fingertips." Of course, there are Braille computers and Braille technology too, so-called refreshable Braille or paperless Braille. But I prefer the paper myself. I've always preferred the paper. And while, admittedly, I am writing this little essay on my laptop, I do still have a manual Royal typewriter at the ready, with a fresh ribbon, for the times when we lose power (which has happened three times already this winter).

Braille is a beautiful thing, a beautiful dying thing. Fewer than ten percent of blind people actually know Braille in this country. Yes, it's still taught to totally blind children, but any child who has some usable vision or "low vision" will often be steered instead toward large print and audio books. And if that child later loses their residual vision, all they have left is audio, which is especially unfortunate because being read to is not the same thing as reading. The latter is active while the former is passive and fraught with problems. For example, there are many things you have no access to when you are being read to. You can't see how words are spelled, or where a paragraph begins or ends, or what sort of punctuation is being used (semicolon or period? Em dash or comma?). The use of italics, parentheses, ellipses, etc. is all invisible, inaccessible, if you're being read to. But if you're actively reading (print or Braille), then you notice these things, you see them and you learn them and you grow fluent in them. With Braille, you can linger over a passage, savor it, reread it comfortably and easily. Not so with audio. It's possible for a blind person to be an audio reader all her life and remain functionally illiterate. And most blind people who have lost their vision in adulthood do tend to opt for audio rather than Braille. Because learning Braille is difficult. And the older you get the more difficult it is, just like with any language. Braille isn't a language—it's a code—but it can accommodate any written language on the planet. When I first learned it, I was in my early twenties and I had none of the attendant grief and/or denial that a person who is losing their vision will likely experience. For me, it was just a hobby, something to do, a game, a curriculum of puzzles. More than anything it was fun! It was all about words. And I have always loved words.

In Braille, there are some 200 contractions, or shortcuts, which means most words aren't actually spelled out letter by letter, but rather contain these contractions that are symbols for clusters of letters or smaller words within words. As an example, the word "distinguished" contains 4 contractions (dis, ing, sh, ed). The contractions for the words and, the, for, of, and with can occur alone and also within words, such as the and in Andrew, the the in Catherine, the of in roof, the for in fork, and so on. In addition, almost every letter in the alphabet, when standing alone, stands for a whole word. B is but, C is can, D is do, E is every, F is from, etc. F with a dot five in front of it is father. M with a dot five is mother. M all by itself is more. There are also certain lower-cell contractions (to, into, by) that attach to the subsequent word or character without a space in between, though this does not occur in print. Many things in nature attach to the subsequent character. Barnacles. Burrs. Baby sloths. And so do certain lower-cell Braille contractions. Braille, you see, like poetry, is all about compression, and there is a kind of poetry of Braille that only a Braille reader can appreciate. All those words within words. And the tactile delight of a string of words that all employ the same kind of Braille contraction. In this sentence, for example, "You can do as you like but it's just that people like us will not go," all of the words are whole-word contractions (mentioned above), meaning each word is reduced to a single letter, usually but not always the initial letter. So in Braille, that sentence would be: "Y c d z y l b x's j t p l u w n g." It's the ultimate compression, distilling language down to the first letter of each word in the sentence!

My former roommate, Gilbert Busch, who was a proofreader at the National Braille Press, told me that the word ice in Braille always reminded him of a little hill: the upward-climbing i, the crest of the c, the downward-sloping e. I never forgot that, and I think of it whenever I come across the word ice in my Braille reading. And my DeafBlind friend John Lee Clark has famously said that Andy in Braille is a square; Sandy is a square with a ponytail. (The AND contraction looks like a left bracket, and is the mirror image of the Braille letter Y, a right bracket. So together, they form a square, while the cascading three dots of the S give it a ponytail.)

And there is a sort of tactile alliteration one experiences when coming across a string of dot 5 contractions all in a row: "Lord knows, some young mothers work right here throughout the day." All of the words in the above sentence are reduced to their first letter preceded by a dot 5. So it feels like a kind of tactile rhyming or anaphora, a rumble strip of dot 5 contractions all in a row. Call me weird, but I get a kick out of these sorts of things when I encounter them in my Braille reading.

And what's even weirder, perhaps, is the fact that I often see Braille where no Braille is intended. I see it everywhere out in the world—it's a little like hearing voices—in anything that is dotted, spotted, freckled, dappled or stippled; letters and even words call out to me from the patterns of bolts on machinery, bolts on the girders of buildings and bridges, polka dots on men's ties and women's dresses, the arrangement of eggs left in the egg carton, the configurations of lighted windows in a house or a building, a splash of freckles on a forearm or decolletage. It's the weirdest thing, but I see it; I see the dots everywhere and I can't help connecting them.

And then of course I see all the Braille that is intended: On elevators and ATMs, on signage for restrooms and hotel rooms and conference rooms in office buildings and medical facilities, anything that was built or renovated after 1990, which is when the ADA was passed, requiring Braille on most public signage. And much of the time, believe it or not, the Braille on these signs is actually upside down! Probably because the people who installed it didn't know how to read Braille. Most people don't. Only once did I speak up about the upside-down Braille, saying to a harried-looking, overworked receptionist, "Excuse me, but the Braille on the sign outside your office door is upside down." She gave me a look that I can only translate as You've got to be effing kidding me. And where on my long list of things to do right now shall I put that useless bit of information?

And what do I read when I'm reading Braille, you may wonder. Books, magazines, newspapers, poetry, short stories, novels, biographies. All of the above. I've read some of the Harry Potter books in Braille, some Lemony Snicket, some Tolkien, Stephen King, a biography of Louis Braille called A Touch of Genius. I've read Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, and Playboy. Lately, though, I'm mostly reading Syndicated Columnists Weekly, a digest of articles and essays from various newspapers and websites that the National Braille Press publishes every week in what they call Jiffy Braille, a process that bypasses the proofreading department—so there may be occasional errors, which I usually catch—which allows them to provide a quick and less expensive way of producing a Braille magazine that shows up in my mailbox every single Thursday.

As I've said, I enjoy reading Braille in bed at night when my wife is zonked and wants some shuteye. No problem, honey, I'll read with the lights out. And I enjoy reading Braille in a dark movie theater during those interminable previews, and even during the movie itself if it turns out to be a lousy movie. I try to always have some Braille handy. I read it in line at the bank, in line at the grocery store, while waiting for the train, while riding on the train, and even while walking from the train (walking and reading is easy as walking and talking!). But most of all I enjoy (see above) reading Braille while driving—driving while intoxicated by Braille!

But it must be illegal, I hear you objecting. Let me assure you, our esteemed lawmakers and constabularies can't even conceive of it. The cops don't suspect a thing, even when they see it with their own eyes. I remember one time I got pulled over for an expired inspection sticker, and though I was sitting there red-handed with the Braille in my lap, rubbing the dots a little nervously from force of habit, my "empties" (the Braille I'd finished reading) littering the floor and backseat (and more in the trunk), when I rolled down my window the officer simply said, "License and registration, please." And did he glance suspiciously at the Braille magazines in the backseat or at the one in my lap? Did he ask me, "Were you reading Braille while driving, sir?" No, of course he didn't. Because he couldn't imagine such a thing. No one can imagine it—no one except you, that is, now that I've told you about it.

No, I'm not advocating distracted driving, and I hasten to add that I don't speed when I'm reading Braille in the car. But lately I have been trying to increase my reading speed, because I'm still rather slow. Compared to someone who grew up with Braille, I'm as plodding as a tortoise. I'm only a little better than that third- or fourth-grader whom the teacher has asked to read aloud in class and who does it somewhat haltingly, occasionally stumbling over the words, having to sound them out when getting stuck. But I remember watching my blind roommate Gilbert reading Braille all those years ago. He had grown up with Braille, so he read with the fingers of both hands, fluidly, fluently, gracefully, and as quickly as any sighted reader can read print with her eyes. The way his hands would dance across the Braille page, it was a beautiful choreography to behold: the left hand beginning each line, handing it off to the right hand halfway across the page, the right hand finishing as the left hand moved down to start the next line—left hand to right hand to left hand to right hand—expert, fleet, like a concert pianist, or like relay runners in a race, the handoff accomplished seamlessly over and over, line by line down the page, page by page through the book.

That sort of native fluency is something I will never be able to emulate. But still, my reading speed has noticeably improved over the years. And while I'm proud of that fact, I also want to remember this other, perhaps more important, fact: reading Braille slows me down, and that's a good thing. It's one of the things I love about Braille. In a way, wanting to read faster runs counter to that desire for slowing down, for going slow, for being present, for being, literally, more in touch with the world.

First appeared in Leaping Clear, Fall 2018