Touching the Book

This post was contributed by Dr Heather Tilley, Exhibition Curator of the Touching the Book exhibition which launches today (18 July 2013) and runs until 31 October 2013 in the Peltz Gallery in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Dr Tilley will be blogging at blogs.bbk.ac.uk/touchingthebook throughout the exhibition.

Front cover to James Gall’s ‘The First Class Book for the Blind’, 1840. Credit: RNIB

Front cover to James Gall’s ‘The First Class Book for the Blind’, 1840. Credit: RNIB

I first started working on nineteenth-century embossed books for blind people about six years ago, as part of my PhD research into the relationship between blindness and writing in the nineteenth century. It is a research process that has been underpinned by two, overlapping, concerns: firstly, the question of academic ownership and secondly, the relationship between touch and sight. These books, as the exhibition draws attention to, were initially produced within the realm of the visual: often produced by people with sight, and designed to be read simultaneously by people with sight.

As a sighted researcher, I was conscious of the fact that much of the discourse around these books – the guides, codes, statements and reports that detailed their production and use – was in printed text, difficult to access by blind people (the sources have largely not been digitised in a meaningful way). The embossed alphabet systems themselves – many of them long obsolete – might have little tactual meaning to a blind person in the twenty-first century. The content of much of the early embossed literature also raises a further set of problems as it belongs very much to mid-nineteenth century evangelical culture, with an emphasis on biblical texts and spiritual guides. To what extent is it helpful or desirable to transcribe the content of these embossed books into other formats (for example braille)? As my researches unfolded, the question of form and media became more central to my analysis than content (although there are correlations between all three), as the point at which the important issue of blind peoples’ reading experiences began to emerge.

First page of the St John’s Gospel embossed in Frere type, 1843. Credit: RNIB

First page of the St John’s Gospel embossed in Frere type, 1843. Credit: RNIB

What then, do we do with these books? How do we read them, and what histories can we draw from them? We need, first of all, a critical practice that more clearly attends to the experience of touch, and its relationship to vision in this period. As my post on James Gall’s first book details, and the exhibition explores, touch was frequently theorised as a useful but often inferior tool for cognitive understanding in early discourses on embossed reading practices. This is where the history of embossed literature intersects with the history of the senses, as shifting ideas of both touch (as well as the literary sign) open up the way for experiments and innovations in this area. We might also explore how these experiments in turn affected wider cultural understanding of both blindness and the sense of touch (interest in the hypothetical blind man restored to sight, a key figure in Enlightenment philosophy, shifts to the tactile intelligence of the feeling blind person in texts such as Alexander Bain’s The Senses and the Intellect, 1855). These are the questions that underpin the exhibition, and that I, and other colleagues – not least the exciting work being done by Vanessa Warne and Jan-Eric Olsén – are exploring in other research forums.

Most significantly, what was it like for blind and partially-sighted people to touch and handle these books? How successful and enriching was their reading experience, from both a perceptual and educational/entertainment point of view? Archives recording traces of reading experiences by blind people are notoriously scanty, as it is mainly institutional perspectives (such as correspondence between institution directors and teachers) that were deemed worthy of recording for posterity.

Unknown photographer, Ann Whiting, ambrotype, c. 1850-60s. Private Collection

Unknown photographer, Ann Whiting, ambrotype, c. 1850-60s. Private Collection

It’s my point here that we can learn something about reading experiences from the form of the books themselves. These books invite an affective reading, impressing traces of previous readers in the dirt of the pages, and the worn surfaces of some of the embossed letters. There is a sense, then, of these books as things which have been used and handled. Indeed some books, such as the copy of St John’s Gospel in Lucas type on display in the exhibition that belonged to Harriet Curry, can be attributed to particular owners and readers. It is this that led to the development of an exhibition proposal that would explore the physical and material qualities of the books themselves and invite reflection on the relationship between these books and their readers. Whilst the fragility of the books means that they will be presented in cases in the exhibition, relief images of some of the central alphabets and texts will allow visitors to get a sense of how these books felt to the touch.

Beyond the exhibition and in the UK, the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) is based nearby and has a rich collection of embossed literature available to consult. And part of the scope of the exhibition blog is to help build up a sense of where other materials are located, and to share information and knowledge about this history. Over the coming months, a series of guest contributors will post about other objects, materials, and collections relating to this history. There is a rise of interest in the history of visual disability. It’s my hope that this rise entails the recovery of more narratives and records about the people who read these books, beyond the hyperbolic – and silencing – accounts we often find in official discourses.

References

Alexander Bain, The Senses and the Intellect (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1855), pp. 346-47.

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