Dear Readers: My History with Aural Texts, Part 3

Georgina Kleege, UC-Berkeley

Reading is not simply a matter of identifying single characters one at a time. Rather, a fluent reader can take in clusters of characters, even whole words or groups of words, in a single glance, and then move the eye in measured jumps, called saccades, across the line and down the page. But I didn’t know this then. All I knew was that the magnifiers gave me headaches, nausea, and vertigo. Still, my rehabilitation specialists were trained to think of these methods as superior to aural reading or Braille, and employed alternating tactics of cheerleading pep talks and tough love exhortations against my whining and stubborn insistence on choosing such a reading heavy line of study. Their budgets allowed them to hand out magnifying glasses like candy, to steer visually impaired students to classes and majors with a lighter reading load and to question every dollar allotted to hiring readers.

So the money I got to hire readers usually ran out in the middle of the semester. This forced me to become adept at bartering for readers. If someone would read to me for one hour I would perform an hour’s worth of any number of chores and tasks. I typed and edited other students’ writing assignments, cleaned apartments, did laundry, cooked meals, even cut hair. You may wonder at the wisdom of someone willing to allow a blind person to cut his hair, but I would argue that cutting hair has as much to do with tactility as with vision. I never had any complaints, and not just because I was the one wielding the scissors. But I digress.

My need to barter for reading time to augment what I could pay for made me adept at calculating the time it would take to read a given assignment out loud. This ability comes back to me as a tactile sensation. I can still hold a book in my hand and do the mental math that will translate it into so many hours of reading on so many cassettes even though this technology is now obsolete. I note that the digital talking book technologies that I use now, similar to tablet reading devices such as the Kindle, all have some sort of indicator showing one’s reading position in terms of the percentage of time elapsed rather than or in addition to numbers of pages read.

Aural reading also affected my sense of texts in terms of matching the reader to the particular text.  In my student days, I developed a system of assigning reading tasks to different readers. The paid readers, while I had access to them, worked on their own and read into a tape recorder, so they were better for reading longer literary texts that I would read more than once. Part of my calculation also included a consideration of the relative difficulties of one text versus another. Reading X number of words by Milton would take significantly longer than reading the same number of words by Hemmingway. Since funds were so limited, I had to develop a sense of a potential reader’s reading fluency. I don’t remember auditioning readers, since it was not as if it was such a desirable job that I had multiple candidates to choose from. But it was possible in a brief conversation, even over the phone, to assess someone’s ease with oral language. The most desirable trait was the ability to speak very rapidly without any loss of annunciation. Since I usually listened to the recordings at a much faster rate than the original, the more words a person could read per minute without slurring or dropping syllables meant more bang for the buck. Even today, I sometimes find myself listening to the voice of a new acquaintance and thinking, “This would make a good reader.” For other reading tasks especially for courses in math and science, I enlisted the aid of friends who were enrolled in the same class, where reading was more of an interactive activity to find answers to questions that we anticipated would show up on the exam. The pertinent information could be distilled into tape-recorded notes rather than a word-for-word recording.

Note-taking for research posed other problems. While I was listening to a recording of a book I had the print version before me, and turned the pages to keep pace with the reading. When I found a passage I wanted to return to, I would insert some sort of bookmark, and record an oral note on a separate cassette. Later I would go through the book with a sighted assistant to retrieve and record the bookmarked passages. Eventually updated models of the specialized tape recorders had a button that allowed me to insert a beep in the recording, audible in fast forward or reverse that allowed me to go directly to a section of text I might want to quote. Then there was the problem of footnotes. I had a set of instructions for my paid readers, but the library services were inconsistent in the way they recorded the scholarly apparatus of a book. The NLS typically ignored footnotes, bibliographies and indices. RFB included a separate cassette, called cassette X, where all the footnotes were gathered. As one read the text, the reader would announce that there was a footnote. One would then eject the text, pop in cassette X, listen to the footnote, and then switch back to the original cassette. Sometimes, I would listen to cassette X after completing the whole chapter or book, as a kind of review or reconstruction of the author’s whole argument.

Obviously, some advice or training in these aural reading and research tasks might have made life simpler, but this was not part of my rehabilitation specialists’ job description. Although my educational history may be idiosyncratic it is not unique. Despite technological advances and more enlightened education policies, I still meet visually impaired students today who are pressed to use one reading modality over another, and encouraged to choose courses and majors according to someone else’s notion of what will be best for them. A prejudice against aural reading persists in special education practices and in the culture at large. Even sighted people who enjoy listening to audio books often describe it as inferior to visual reading. Aural reading is assumed to be more passive, less autonomous. This may be true of first time or casual listeners, but for people like me who depend on aural reading and have used it in a range of contexts over long periods of time, I would argue that this mode of reading has not only different demands but also different rewards.   Aural reading requires active engagement, promotes oral comprehension, and perhaps even aids memory. One learns to appreciate and anticipate the meter and rhythm of prose as much as verse, to sense the shape of narratives and arguments as they unfold. When I hear educators lament how many children today learn to read but do not enjoy it, I wonder if aural reading might be a viable alternative, whether or not the child has any kind of disability. The different modes of reading – with the eyes, with the ears, with the fingers – are all simply different means to the same end.