Like the Touching the Book exhibition, the Musée Valentin Haüy in Paris has a fascinating collection of tactile books and writing systems on permanent display. Yet whilst the two exhibitions have much in common, they also tell us very different things about the ways in which embossed literature for the blind developed on either side of the channel during the nineteenth century.
Both exhibitions display a number of tactile books made with embossed versions of the Roman alphabet. These books, whilst often surprisingly attractive to the eye, were paradoxically difficult for the blind to read. As I found when I tried reading one of Haüy’s books in Paris, fingers struggle with the lines and curves which make up our alphabet. Whilst relatively easy for the sighted to read, these early embossed texts were frustrating and unwieldy for the blind themselves. These attempts to replicate the sighted reading experience in tactile form demonstrate that early inventors were unable to imagine non-sighted ways of accessing the written word. As resoundingly occulocentric titles such as William Moon’s Light for the Blind: A History of Moon’s System of Embossed Reading unwittingly suggest, blindness was seen as an irretrievably negative condition where the afflicted were plunged into a darkness which only access to the written word – or the word of God – could alleviate. Unlike the books in London, several of the books on display in Paris have the embossed characters also highlighted in ink in order to further encourage the sighted to read these books alongside the blind. Whilst it may at first seem merely unfortunate that Haüy and his British counterparts developed embossed books which the blind found hard to read, the reasoning behind their decisions might be more sinister. It is possible that some sighted producers of books for the blind were reluctant to create a system – such as Braille – which the blind would master more easily than the sighted. Such a system could well reverse the hierarchical relationship between the sighted and the blind by freeing the blind from their dependence on sighted readers and publishers. The beauty of arbitrary systems like Braille is that they are not only easier to feel – dots being easier for the fingers to identify than lines – but they also give the blind levels of autonomy and independence which place them outside the control of the sighted. They allow the blind to both run, and teach in blind schools and they enable two blind readers to communicate without the intervention – or knowledge- of their sighted teachers, family and friends.
It is not just the appearance of the embossed type which differs from one country to another. One of the most interesting aspects of the history of embossed literature is the subject matter of the books on display. Whilst the books at the Musée Valentin Haüy cover a range of subjects including science, geography, music and philosophy, the books on display in London are largely religious. This reflects one of the essential differences between British and French endeavours: whilst the French wanted to enable the blind to read in order to educate them, the British were more concerned with their spiritual, rather than their intellectual welfare. The leading proponents of the various embossed systems; blind schools, church groups and visiting teachers, took embossed tracts and Bibles to the blind in order to help them literally feel the word of God. Indeed it is easy to imagine how the sensual experience of reading embossed text would be seen to magnify the power of the religious experience. There are two books in the London exhibition which focus on the wider general education of the blind. One, A Peep into the Menagerie of Birds, a guide to bird identification, provides detailed descriptions of the appearance of various British birds. On the one hand this might be seen as an endearing – if patronising – attempt to bring nature within the grasp of the blind and enable them to engage in meaningful conversation with their sighted peers. But on the other hand, it seems at best tactless and at worst cruel to provide the blind with descriptions of birds they will never see. Surely an evocation of their songs would be of more value? Likewise, An Introduction to the Science of Astronomy details how to use a telescope to identify various constellations. But why teach the blind to look at stars they will never see? This emphasis on sight in the content of the non-religious books on display paradoxically draws attention to the very faculty which the tactile reader is lacking. As with the emphasis on embossed texts based on the Roman alphabet, replicating such content in tactile books emphasises the Victorian era’s inability to imagine that life without sight might be valuable in its own right. At least in Paris the emphasis which Haüy and his followers placed on music suggests that they understood that both the form and the content of books for the blind should appeal to the non-visual senses.
Aside from revealing interesting cultural differences between British and French understandings of blindness and the blind, a comparison of these exhibitions also raises important questions about the publication of material in non-standard forms which are still relevant today. The decidedly odd choice of content in the works referred to above encourages us to wonder who was responsible for deciding which books should be translated into embossed print and what criteria they applied when making such choices. According to the RNIB, only seven per cent of book published today are produced in large-print, Braille or audio formats. Who decides what the blind can and cannot read? And what do these choices tell us about society’s view of the blind? Such decisions must not be taken lightly. They go to the heart of a politics of cultural inclusion and education which will determine how future generations relate both to their blindness and to the wider world.
Dr Hannah Thompson is a Senior Lecturer in French at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of the popular blog Blind Spot and is currently writing a book on representations of blindness in French literature.