Ep. 9: Blurry Lines: Books by author with vision problems

Within the past month, we came across two articles from different sources (Vision Australia and Books Tell You Why) talking about the same topic: famous writers with vision problems. Serendipity? Maybe. But both articles gave us the idea for this episode: to talk about books being written by authors despite problems with their eyesight.

Eyeglasses are on, so let's begin, shall we?

👤 John Milton
Milton lost his sight due to glaucoma when he was about 43 years old. Although many interpreted Milton's blindness as punishment for criticizing the monarchy, Milton himself saw it as a blessing which allowed him to focus on his art rather than on his image and looks.

This is a classic epic poem, relating the battle between God and Satan in heaven, hell, and earth over the destiny of humankind. If the title was not indication enough, Adam and Eve are at the center of the fight between the two forces.

An article from Buzzfeed called 9 Literary Cocktails to Quench Your Thirst for Knowledge (and Alcohol), offers a recipe for a drink inspired by Paradise Lost. If you want to have this drink while reading the book, pour gin and pomegranate juice into a glass garnished with a sliced fig.
If instead, you would like to visit the place in which Milton completed the book, you can head to John Milton's Cottage in Chalfont St Giles, England. Milton came to this home as an escape from the plague of 1665. Here, he would commit to memory the pieces of the poem that he would dictate later. The poem mentions several plants, and many of them can be found around the cottage.
John Milton's cottage
Alan from Lancashire, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
👤 Helen Keller
A severe illness at 19 months old, obliterated Keller's vision and audition; hence, also affecting her ability to speak. Despite these obstacles, Helen Keller learned to read and write, with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, and she obtained a Bachelor's degree from Radcliff College.

This autobiography, elapsing the first 22 years of Helen Keller, is full of moving and inspiring moments. Keller tells us in her own voice how obstacles are no match for human courage and perseverance.

The book was adapted into the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker.

👤 James Joyce
Joyce suffered from debilitating eye pain since he was 25. As the pain and eye troubles continued, he was submitted to a long list of horrific surgeries and treatments that eventually led to the lost of sight in his left eye and the fitting of an artificial pupil. His last novel, Finnegan's Wake, took him 17 years to complete. Since he was opposed to dictating his writing, he wrote through a sliver of his squinting eyes using crayons to enhance visibility. 

Finnegans Wake is Joyce's masterpiece of a last novel. In his signature experimental style, Joyce gave us unforgettable characters while making use of language as inventively and creatively as few writers can. This novel is a literal never-ending story, with a fragmented starting sentences that is the continuation of the also fragmented last sentence in the book.

Fans will reJoyce at the Dublin Writers Museum. Here, visitors can listen to a recording (there are only two in existence) of Joyce's voice reading from no other book than Finnegan's Wake. On another Finnegan's-Wake-inspired pilgrimage, you can see the desk at which the novel was completed in the James Joyce Center in Dublin. Or, if art is more your thing, Society6 sells a hieroglyph translation of the first page of the novel.     

👤 James Thurber
James Thurber was blinded as a child in an accident involving an arrow while recreating the legend of William Tell with his brother. Thurber perceived his blindness as encouraging to the act of writing; he once said that the kingdom of the partly blind was like the fantastic lands of Oz or Wonderland, where anything was possible.

This is a short story first published in The New Yorker in 1939, and later included in Thurber's book My World and Welcome to It.

The book has been adapted to film twice, the most recent and popular instance being in 2013, starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, and Sean Penn. You can watch the trailer here

👤 Jorge Luis Borges
Borges went blind when he was 55 years-old, just like his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather before him and gone blind. But the "progressive nightfall", as he called the disease, did not deter his writing, as he compensated by memorizing his work.

Ficciones is our Six Word Review book this week. This is our attempt: Seventeen labyrinths inside a genius's mind, what's your?

👤 Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and writer of books on fascinating topics about the human mind, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in one of his eyes. He wrote about himself into his book, The Mind's Eye, and described the impact the tumor had on his own vision and visual perception. 

Sacks explains in the book how the visual world is experienced in the form of three-dimensional perception, facial recognition, reading, and even the role vision plays in ideation. The book relates stories from people who have adapted to the loss of vision with resourcefulness. Some of these stories are first-person accounts by Sacks himself.

The 2010 Hardcover edition of The Mind's Eye is a perfect selection for this week's theme in our Cover Gallery.
2010 Hardcover edition by Picador
👤 Sue Townsend
The writer of the beloved Adrian Mole series lost her eyesight due to complications with diabetes. The last three books in the series were completed after Townsend had been registered as blind. Despite the vision impairment, she remained positive, stating she would turn it into her advantage, and even writing one of the characters in the series losing his sight.

This is the last book in the Adrian Mole series. We met Adrian Mole in Book 1 when he is 13 3/4. Throughout the series, he is followed as he becomes an adult. Now he is middle aged and the ups and downs of parenthood are plaguing him.

There is a musical adaptation, no longer being staged, of the first book in the Adrian Mole series. The book was also adapted for TV in the UK.  

👤 Homer
Homer is thought to have been blind, but this is based solely on a character from his stories. In The Odyssey, a blind poet called Demodokos performs music and epic tales of heroes and wars for an audience. Demodokos has been interpreted as Homer weaving himself into the story and hinting at his own life. Homer's epic poems were performed orally, not written; however, the ability to perform these two sagas is not less impressive. 

The epic account of the Trojan War. A sweeping story charged with actions, the Iliad is one of the two great epics of Homer, featuring characters like Achilles, Helen, Hector, and other heroes and gods of Greek myth and history. It finishes as the trojan horse is accepted inside the city walls, causing an end to the war that lasted a decade.

Inspired by the Illiad, Valerie Stivers from the Paris Review has written an article of her recreation of a feast in the same fashion as the ones had by Homeric troops. Based on Homer's details regarding the cuts of meat and how to roast them in spits, she came up with the idea of skewering and grilling a boneless leg of lamb wrapped in pork belly and marinated with wine. For dessert, she made a tart with figs and honey, both ingredients mentioned throughout the book. Finally, since a Homeric feast would not be complete without wine, she offers a list of wines from the regions or made from the grapes Homer refer to in the epic. The article offers extensive details for preparing every dish, the reason for selecting the ingredients, and information on obtaining the specific wines listed.

The Odyssey picks up after The Illiad ends. Odysseus, the mastermind behind the Trojan horse, relies on his wit for survival in his encounters with divine and natural forces. The epic narrates his ten-year voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. This is at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral endurance.

It is certainly possible to follow Odysseus travels in the modern day. It might require the chartering of a yacht, but is you are up for it, Travel.Earth offers you an ideal itinerary across Turkey, Greece, Malta, and Italy.

Photo by Nick Karvounis

Both of Homer's epics are our selection for Book vs Book this week. You can go and cast your vote. 
There is a Pulitzer Prize winner who, as a child, was blinded in one eye when shot with a BB gun by an older brother. You can head to our GuessWork page, read the first line of one of her books, and give us your best guess.

To buy books covered in this episode, visit our TBR Bundles 


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