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Peter White’s Love For Braille Books

January 4, 2021

The need for last year’s resolution started in my childhood. (Don’t they all?) By the age of six, I was reading braille at an unheard-of speed, to the point where the teacher at my blind school accused me of lying when I said I had finished the three books she had given me that morning. It was the start of a lifelong problem: braille books were scarce, but I could not get enough of them.

The school had devised a particularly cruel and subtle form of torture for someone like me: they kept just one title of a child’s favourite author in the school library; for example, just one Famous Five book, one Billy Bunter, one Just William. As I grew older and my tastes changed, the problem remained the same: one Raymond Chandler, one PG Wodehouse, just one even mildly dirty book when puberty hit.

But don’t feel sorry for me, because this story has a kind of happy ending. The digital revolution hit. Suddenly, through the agency of talking laptops and braille note-taking machines, it became possible to turn print books into braille books; not just the books the braille libraries thought you ought to have, but the ones you actually wanted. It required certain computer skills that I struggle with, but it was possible. Through the generosity of friends and relatives, a trickle of such books began to turn into a stream – and then a flood.

The bookshop that used to be a place of torture had become a treasure trove; I began to buy, borrow, steal any book I could lay my hands on and get it scanned into braille. And here lay my need for a resolution.

The rational part of me finally admitted that, unless I were to defy all known rules of longevity, I would never be able to read all the digital books I’d already accrued – let alone any that I might acquire in future.Advertisement

I was also coming close to exhausting the tolerance of those – usually my spouse or offspring – who, in variable states of willingness, accompanied me on these ill-thought-out book searches. At the peak of my mania, I was acquiring as many as 40, sometimes 50, books a week (thank God for the secondhand bookshop, or we would have had to give up eating).

An added problem was where to put them. There was no room left in our existing bookshelves (have you seen the size of the average braille book? War and Peace alone comes in 21 volumes). So my new print books began to pile up in every conceivable space: tottering heaps stacked against any vacant wall, from the loft to the loo, the garage to the shed.

It was at the beginning of this year that I realised I would have to stop. I decided to limit myself to books I needed for my work as a broadcaster, or for minimal keeping up with like-minded friends, or books that I could say were “essential reading”. Books I would not just start, but might actually finish, too.

So far, I reckon I am doing all right. After all, that book I discovered the other day on a rather obscure Danish battle in 1864 is sure to come in handy when I meet my friend from the local history society. The job lot of four cricket books I could not resist will oil the wheels should any cricket-obsessed acquaintances drop in for dinner after the pandemic – and then there is Build Your Own Gym, which, in these days of self-managed exercise, is surely an absolute must. I mean, when it comes to books, who is to say what is essential reading?

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