Book Review – Notes on Blindness: A Journey Through The Dark
Review By Casey Douglass
|Cover Image © Copyright Profile Books|
Going blind is one of my very greatest fears, right up there alongside death, and being locked into a totally paralysed body. As I was browsing in my local Waterstones, I came across Notes on Blindness nestling amongst other books that, if memory serves, were all collected around the theme of giving insight into other peoples’ lives. I picked it up, read the blurb, felt my insides turn cold, put the book down again and mentally said “Hell no!” before walking off to look at a different section. Whether I came back to Notes on Blindness due to the lack of anything else of interest on the shelves, or whether I came back to it through a sense of facing my fears, I came back to it and bought it. The woman who served me commented that she would have liked to read it, and I shared my concerns about my ability to cope with it, but also my resolve to expose my fears to a dose of reality, even if only second-hand reality. She wished me luck. Did the book reassure me, or did it send me further into dread? You’ll have to read on to find out.
Days before the birth of his first son, writer and academic John M. Hull started to go blind. He would lose his sight entirely, plunged into darkness, unable to distinguish any sense of light or shadow. Isolated and claustrophobic, he sank into a deep depression. Soon, he had forgotten what his wife and daughter looked like. In Notes on Blindness, John reveals his profound sense of loss, his altered perceptions of time and space, of waking and sleeping, love and companionship. With astonishing lucidity of thought and no self-pity, he describes the horror of being faceless, and asks what it truly means to be a husband and father. And eventually, he finds a new way of experiencing the world, of seeing the light despite the darkness.Based on John's diaries recorded on audio tape, this is a profoundly moving, wise and life-affirming account of one man's journey into blindness. Notes on Blindness was the basis for a major documentary in 2016.
John is a very astute author, the descriptions and thought he gives to things that would have never even have occurred to me was, and I don’t use this word lightly, a revelation. While being quick to explain that he can’t talk for all blind people, only his own experience, John does a fantastic job of giving voice to the fears and obstacles that he himself struggled with.
One of the many things he ponders is the role that sight plays in memory. John became fully blind later in life so was able to draw comparisons between his earlier sighted life and the period that came after his blindness. He mulls over the issue of how it became harder to remember faces, often having to remember a photo he had seen previously, rather than more interactive exchanges with the person involved. He also became aware of how visually loaded our language is, when we ask someone if they have “seen” this or that, or say “I see what you mean”. This becomes just one of a number of areas in which he becomes aware of the difficulties that the blind and the sighted can face in interacting with each other.
Another aspect of John’s experience is what he viewed as the passive nature of his dealings with the environment around him. Sitting in a park, listening to the various aspects of the soundscape, he could build a picture of the ducks quacking, the pedestrians walking by, and the wind rustling the leaves of the trees. It doesn’t take him long to notice that if something falls silent, it has in many ways, ceased to exist for him. He has to wait for something to announce itself or he is unaware of its presence. Even someone calling his name becomes a bolt out of the blue, as he has no idea it is coming. Visual sensory experience isn’t like this.
When it comes to his dealings with other people, things are expectedly a mixed bag. He loves his family but feels isolated from the Christmas celebrations as they are based so much around the visual. His experience with strangers varies from touching to frustrating, from the man who walks him around a recently crashed car on the pavement at one end of the spectrum, to the idiots warning him of non-existent cars as he crosses the street unaccompanied at the other. John also takes a number of instances of God/Jesus based healing in a good natured and patient manner, seemingly by focussing on the good intentions of the people involved rather than their ignorance as to how they might be coming across to him. His own religious faith also plays its part in the avenues his thoughts end up going down.
I could mention much more but I’ve already said a good deal, and even what little I’ve said doesn’t really do John’s writing justice. One thing that I will add is that John’s dreams become very important to him, providing anything from a sense of release and adventure, to a means for him to see how he might actually be mentally coping with the loss of his sight. These dream accounts proved to be just as interesting as the other areas of the book.
I highly recommend Notes on Blindness to anyone that feels ignorant about what it might be like to be blind. As far as my own feelings and fears, I would say that the book may have slightly reduced them, quite possibly by simply exposing myself to the topic in this particular way. I am still afraid, but in the fears and thoughts of John, I found a connection, even if only mental, that seemed to spread that fear out a little bit, to soften its edges and roll back some of the more uninformed aspects of what thoughts I’d held on the matter. A very good book indeed.
Notes on Blindness was first published as Touching the Rock in 1990 and was later reissued in 2013. The version reviewed came out in 2017 on the back of the success of an award winning documentary, also called Notes on Blindness, that was an adaptation of Touching the Rock. Find out more here : http://www.notesonblindness.co.uk.
Book Title: Notes on Blindness: A Journey Through The Dark
Author: John Hull
Published: This edition: 2017
Publisher: Welcome Collection and Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1781258590RRP: Paperback £8.99