Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Marginalia and Other New Adventures

Finding information might become even more difficult for blind and low vision readers.  Not only do scholars and readers in general have to deal with the graphics and accessibility issues online, but print publishers have become more creative in their offerings.  In 2013, A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor was published in two parts.  The first part contained the journal as it was edited.  The second part is a copy of the journal as it was handwritten by the young author with any errors in spelling or grammar.  While I was curious about what prayers Flannery O'Connor wrote while she attended the MFA program at the University of Iowa, I did not have any interest in getting out my "red pen" and scrawling in the margins or playing "gotcha."  The writer in me wanted to give O'Connor respect and privacy and also gratitude for not throwing the journal away.  I am also grateful to the NLS Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for making the print section of this book available in an audio version.

While I found the format of Flannery O’Connor’s journal , published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2013), interesting, what I found when I decided to read two books by Stephen Sondheim was frustrating on many levels.  Both “Finding the Hat” (2010) and "Look, I Made a Hat" (2011), published by Alfred A Knopf, provide more challenges for scholars and readers who are living with low vision and blindness and the readers who create audio books.  The Sondheim books are oversized like children's picture books.  In addition to containing many full-page photographs, the title pages inform the reader that both books contain "Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Principles, Amplifications, Heresies, Dogmas, Grudges, Harangues, Whines, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany."  And where do you put all that stuff?  Anywhere you want.  How do sighted people read all of this information?  Anybody's guess.

I tried reading the Sondheim books that are not available in audio with a scanner and reading software.  When my computer started whining and calling out to me in distress, I took the books to the local library for the blind and showed them to a helpful volunteer who informed me that the books contain HANDWRITING in addition to many and varied columns of print.  In fact, some of the most important information that I want to read is handwritten.

I am not going to scold computer engineers and programmers and try to bully them into creating software that reads handwriting and text along with any marginalia because they are probably already trying to do this.  I am not going to scold the National Library Service nor Learning Ally for not sparing my computer and me several wasted hours by putting these books in audio format because they might be taking on this challenge that will be heroic.  I am not even going to scold Stephen Sondheim and his publisher because these magnificent books provide a great service to aspiring songwriters.  I will just have a brief pity party and accept the fact that there are just some books that are off limits for me and move on to something else.

I expect that in the future even more books for young adults and adults will begin to look like online websites, cluttered with information that leads nowhere and has no links just because.  Creativity is not always functional or practical.  Coffee table books that only look good have been around for a very long time, but looks can be deceiving.  Sondheim’s books are treasures that deserve in-depth reading.

Since works for writers are the subject of this post, reference tools such as rhyming dictionaries can also be difficult for people living with low vision.  Online reference tools can be accessed easily, but print versions that can be used with a CCTV and other magnifiers require test runs.  One rhyming dictionary for songwriters is very small and uses words instead of sounds.  Readers who land on a word are given the instructions to go to another word where the sound and rhyming words will be found.  Other rhyming dictionaries are available in several sizes.  The smaller versions require higher magnification.  The best have a sound that is followed by a column of words that go from lower number syllable words to higher ones.  Bronner’s Rhyming Phrases Dictionary (2000) makes searching for a rhyme more thorough but not more efficient unless you are writing rap songs.  All reference tools whether online or in print are distracting during the creative process, so I avoid them until it is time to revise.

New adventures online and in print are old hat and only emphasize the need for sighted or paid readers.  The adventure is much more fun when the reader enjoys a subject as much as you do.    

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