Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction), there are three ways to join in Nonfiction November this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This year I read several books by blind people or about the topic of blindness. My interest was first sparked by reading Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life for the Classics Club last year.

I then wanted to read another collection of her essays, The World I Live In, which came highly recommended by Oliver Sacks, among others. As I said in my review, “it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.”

Oliver Sacks’s own An Anthropologist on Mars contains several fascinating case studies of blind or vision-impaired individuals, including a painter who becomes color-blind with disturbing results; a man whose brain is damaged by a tumor that is later removed, leaving him blind but convinced he can still see; and another man who is able to have an operation that partly restores his sight but ends up unable to negotiate this new world. It is revealed that sight is not only about functioning eyes, but something we must learn to do — with very great difficulty after we lose the malleability of our brains in early childhood. There is so much to think about here, that I can only recommend that everyone read this illuminating book.

This was all so interesting that I wanted to learn more. Library browsing brought up Haben, an autobiography by a deaf-blind woman who graduated from Harvard Law School and now works as a lawyer for disability rights. Her courage and persistence were impressive, and it was good to read from an inside perspective about her experience of prejudice, misunderstanding, and the struggle to make herself seen and heard.

I also stumbled upon For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney, a journalist who has been terrified of becoming blind from a young age. When she wrote an article about Braille without Borders, a school for blind children in Tibet, she was moved to investigate further and spend time teaching English at another school in India. Mahoney seemed quite oblivious about how unreasonable her own fears and prejudices were, which was a little off-putting, but she does uncover some important information and experiences that added to my understanding of the topic. I would rather have read a book by a student of Braille without Borders, though.

Have you read any other books by or about blind people? What can you recommend?

26 thoughts on “Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

  1. Have Dog Will Travel is the memoir of a man who was raised to hide his blindness because it embarrassed his family. As an adult he decides to get a guide dog and accepting his blindness opens up his whole world.


  2. What an interesting topic, Many years ago I read Emma & I by Sheila Hocken, a memoir about a woman and her guide dog. I remember it being very moving but I’m not sure how it would hold up today. It was first published in the 1970’s and has been republished a few times since then.
    Thanks for sharing your expertise.


    1. I have not read any books about guide dogs (Helen Keller loved dogs but they were not trained as they are today) so that looks like an interesting direction to pursue.


  3. Most of the books I’ve read that involve blindness are fiction, including All the Light We Cannot See and The Cay. Here are a few nonfiction possibilities: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler and The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.


  4. This is an awesome subject. I interpret for deaf-blind clients and so Haben has been on my TBR for some time and, truthfully, I have no idea why I haven’t picked it up yet. I read a Louis Braille biography years and years ago but cannot find the title. I’m betting it was a children’s book….


  5. I haven’t read it, but I know two close friends who did and loved it:
    And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II, by Jacques Lusseyran.
    I can’t remember reading any nonfiction of the theme myself, though a few in nonfiction. Besides All the Light We Cannot See, the classics Blindness, by Saramago is so good


    1. I’ve read And There Was Light but it was a long time ago so I did not include it here. But I want to reread it now! Definitely highly recommended. it would be a good read for our French club as well.


  6. I worked at an ophthalmologist’s office for nine years before quitting to start traveling with my husband’s job. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever read any books about blindness. What an oversight on my part! I didn’t work with people who were blind or in imminent danger of losing their vision very often but I remember how desperate the few I did meet were to hold onto any vision at all. Some of them were young and heartbreaking. Their doctors would take it hard when they knew there was nothing else they could do too. I’ll look for these titles.


    1. Rosemary Mahoney’s book really addresses that issue, because she herself had an accident to her eye that made her very afraid of losing her vision. Meanwhile the blind people she meets through the school are able to move much more freely and joyfully without that fear. Makes me pause for thought – what is our real disability, a lack of sense perception or our fears and anxieties?


  7. You’ve sold me on the Helen Keller book. I remember watching a programme about her when I was a young child and her experience has stuck in my mind. So have now added this book to my wishlist


    1. As I read her experiences I realized how far we still are from including the so-called disabled in society, though giving them lip service. She met some daunting obstacles – nevertheless, she persisted!


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