The BookBrowse Review

Published August 2, 2023

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Country of the Blind
The Country of the Blind
A Memoir at the End of Sight
by Andrew Leland

Hardcover (18 Jul 2023), 368 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 9781984881427

A witty, winning, and revelatory personal narrative of the author's transition from sightedness to blindness and his quest to learn about blindness as a rich culture all its own

We meet Andrew Leland as he's suspended in the liminal state of the soon-to-be blind: he's midway through his life with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that ushers those who live with it from sightedness to blindness over years, even decades. He grew up with full vision, but starting in his teenage years, his sight began to degrade from the outside in, such that he now sees the world as if through a narrow tube. Soon—but without knowing exactly when—he will likely have no vision left.

Full of apprehension but also dogged curiosity, Leland embarks on a sweeping exploration of the state of being that awaits him: not only the physical experience of blindness but also its language, politics, and customs. He negotiates his changing relationships with his wife and son, and with his own sense of self, as he moves from his mainstream, "typical" life to one with a disability. Part memoir, part historical and cultural investigation, The Country of the Blind represents Leland's determination not to merely survive this transition but to grow from it—to seek out and revel in that which makes blindness enlightening.

Thought-provoking and brimming with warmth and humor, The Country of the Blind is a deeply personal and intellectually exhilarating tour of a way of being that most of us have never paused to consider—and from which we have much to learn.

The Country of the Blind

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges lost his vision—what he called his "reader's and writer's sight"—around the same time that he became the director of the National Library of Argentina. This put him in charge of nearly a million books, he observed, at the very moment he could no longer read them.

Borges, who went blind after a long decline in vision when he was fifty-five, never learned braille. Instead, like Milton, he memorized long passages of literature (his own, and those of the writers he loved), and had companions who read to him and to whom he dictated his writing.

Much of this work—he published nearly forty books after he went blind—was done by his elderly mother, Leonor, with whom he lived until her death at ninety-¬nine, and who had done the same work for Borges's father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, a writer who also went blind in middle age. (Borges's blindness was hereditary, and his father and grandmother "both died blind," Borges said—"blind, laughing, and brave, as I also hope to die.")

Borges kept his job as director of the National Library, and he became a professor of English at the University of Buenos Aires. But literature had become, for him, entirely oral.

Borges decided to use the occasion of his blindness to learn a new language, and his description of the pleasure of learning Old English reminds me of my first forays into learning to read tactilely:

What always happens, when one studies a language, happened. Each one of the words stood out as though it had been carved, as though it were a talisman. For that reason poems in a foreign language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply of the strangeness of them.

In the newness of Old English, Borges found an almost tactile relief in the unfamiliar words, as though they were "carved," like the raised print in those first books for the blind printed in Paris nearly two hundred years before. But because Borges never learned braille, his experience of literature remained fundamentally sonic: "I had replaced the visible world," he said, "with the aural world of the Anglo-Saxon language."

In the same lecture, Borges listed the "advantages" that blindness had brought him, but they all strike me as banal, things he could have easily had as a sighted writer: "the gift of Anglo-Saxon, my limited knowledge of Icelandic, the joy of so many lines of poetry." He is pleased to have a contract from an editor to write another book of poems, provided he can produce thirty new ones in a year, which he notes is challenging considering he'll have to dictate them. This makes it sound like adapting to blindness for Borges meant, very simply, carrying on his work as a writer.

But in his poems and stories, Borges strikes a less sanguine tone about becoming blind. In "Poem of the Gifts," Borges observes the coincidence that one of his predecessors in directing the National Library, Paul Groussac, was also blind. The poem, which begins with the irony of God's granting him "books and blindness at one touch," is written in a slippery voice that may be Borges's, or Groussac's.

"What can it matter, then, the name that names me," he says, "given our curse is common and the same?" Borges cannot distinguish between himself and "that other dead one":

Which of the two is setting down this poem— a single sightless self, a plural I?

The transience of the writer's identity was a long-¬standing theme for Borges, one he developed in the work published after his blindness. "So my life is a point-¬counterpoint," he wrote in "Borges and I":

a kind of fugue, and a falling away—and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man

I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page.

Written in the years ...

Full Excerpt

From The Country of the Blind by Andrew Leland. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023, Andrew Leland. Except first appeared at Lithub.

Andrew Leland, facing a total loss of sight, blends his personal experience with an absorbing survey of the past and current state of blindness in this wide-ranging study.

Print Article Publisher's View   

The Believer editor and audio producer Andrew Leland first noticed a change in vision when he was in middle school. On wild nights out with friends in the hills around Santa Fe, he had what he initially dismissed as night blindness, but soon tunnel vision was affecting him seriously. When he was in college, a famous specialist diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) — a genetic condition more prevalent among those with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, as Leland has — and told him his sight would deteriorate slowly in his 20s and 30s, then rapidly in midlife.

Leland, now in his 40s, has resisted that doctor's prediction by maintaining a gradual pattern of vision loss. In the years that he was writing this book, though, he was coming to terms with his eventual complete blindness and had started using a cane and learning braille. Through his research and travels, he came to feel connected with the disabled community throughout history, finding reassurance that he wasn't alone and that, with the range of assistive technologies now available, he would be able to cope with the challenges of the future.

The title is borrowed from an H.G. Wells science fiction short story, "The Country of the Blind," about an explorer who finds an entire civilization of people born blind. Leland uses the phrase to refer to the blind community in the United States, but also dispersed throughout place and time. He begins, appropriately, with a survey of early hospices and schools where blind people were treated and educated. The first known institution was the Quinze-Vingts in Paris in 1260, a hospital for the blind; its residents were sent out as beggars to earn money, thereby establishing a stereotype of helplessness that has remained ever since. Schools for the blind appeared in Europe in the late 18th century. The first in the US, the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, was chartered in 1829.

It is common for the blind to enroll in mainstream schooling and then work in the disability field, Leland notes. For instance, he met a graduate of UC Berkeley (a hotbed of disability activism in the 1950s to 1980s) who now works as Amazon's Principal Accessibility Researcher, ensuring that its devices are usable by the disabled. Leland is careful to explain that the privileged — he includes himself in this category — can afford to buy lots of assistive technology, but others are not so lucky. He also exposes in-fighting and ironic discrimination within national disability organizations, where ingrained racism means people of color may not feel represented or comfortable participating.

I was impressed by the intersectionality of Leland's approach. Chapter 4, "The Male Gaze," is particularly interesting, addressing the interplay of blindness and sexuality, with topics including the objectification of women and the public's metaphorical equating of blindness with castration, from Oedipus to Bill Cosby. He also highlights cross-disability movements and ways in which inventions first developed as assistive technology end up being helpful to all: Jacuzzi tubs, closed captioning, typewriters, audiobooks and self-driving cars. Thanks to audio description services, screen readers, e-books with very large print, braille and the Bookshare accessible book repository (see Beyond the Book), Leland remains a reader.

The book is wide-ranging, which some readers may appreciate, but those who pick it up mostly for the autobiographical element may find the profusion of detail on assistive and medical technologies, activists and organizations overwhelming. It is most engaging when we get glimpses of Leland's own blindness journey or go along with him on his travels, such as to a National Federation of the Blind convention in Florida and to one of its residential training courses in Colorado, where he was given sleep shades to simulate total blindness and received lessons in cooking and cleaning.

As well as giving a practical rundown of the various causes of blindness and attempts to mitigate it, the book launches a philosophical enquiry into what it means. Is it a formative trait, or something to be resisted? "Blindness is at once central and incidental," Leland writes, an "experience of relentless, minor cataclysm, folded into the banality of everyday life … [o]ne of the most surprising discoveries I've made is how absolutely ordinary blindness can be." Within an everyday many would think unimaginable, he's found camaraderie. His conversational memoir invites readers to explore his new country with him.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Providing a raw and honest depiction of what it is like to straddle two worlds, Leland lays his feelings and the realities of his condition out on the table, in particular the impact of RP on his personal interactions. The Country of the Blind does not leave readers with a sense of sadness—quite the opposite. By mixing reality checks with wit, Leland's prose exudes hope and authenticity.

The Guardian
Though Leland is accused occasionally by friends of 'over-intellectualising' his situation, his fine sensibility, lucid writing and dignified treatment of his subject feels anything but indulgent. This book invites us all to rethink what it means to desire, to read, to be independent, to sit with uncertainty and to assume a new identity. Leland models how we might accept inevitable changes in our faculties as we age with tempered apprehension, humour and interest.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Leland delivers a masterful exploration of disability in his brilliant debut ... Enriched by its sparkling prose, this is an extraordinary and intellectually rigorous account of adapting to change.

Kirkus Reviews
Leland provides both fascinating capsule histories of the topics he's pondering, as with a survey of the disability rights movement, and searching glimpses into his own existential struggle to understand what it means for him to be blind ... When the author gets personal, he does so with such honesty and vulnerability that by the end, readers will understand when he concludes, 'The process of retinal degeneration has turned out to be one of the most generative experiences of my life' ... Emotional but never sentimental, this quest for insight delivers for its readers.

Library Journal
This informative and engaging memoir will appeal to readers who like to be entertained as they broaden their awareness of disability and others' lives.

Author Blurb Chloé Cooper Jones, author of Easy Beauty
Andrew Leland has written an important and masterful book, one filled with deep thought and feeling, vulnerability and humor, and absolutely gorgeous prose. Rare is the writer who can gift the reader the kind of expansive generosity The Country of the Blind offers with ease on every page.

Author Blurb Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
This is such a gorgeous book. Andrew Leland manages to deftly balance the personal, historical and political as he documents—documents is too sterile a word; he gently sings about—his becoming blind. There is a great nonfiction book here about the history of blindness and the pioneers who have built a world of access and empowerment. But crucially, Leland weaves into that larger tapestry the deeply touching story of how he, his wife Lily, and his son Oscar face their myriad new challenges—with open minds and abundant wit, and always fearlessly together.

Author Blurb Joshua Cohen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Netanyahus
Leland writes with astounding humor and humility about ability, disability, the confusions between them, the confusions of middle age, marriage, and parenthood, language in all its beauty and bias, and more to the n-th power. Approaching what he calls the end of sight, he has summoned up that higher vision.

Author Blurb Temple Grandin, author of Visual Thinking
In The Country of the Blind, Andrew Leland tells the story of his gradual transition into the blindness community with sensitivity and insight. He vividly describes his new sensory perceptions and emotions and outlines controversies about the training of the blind. His experiences will resonate powerfully with those in the autism community and beyond. A valuable book.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by HARMAN
The writer Andrew has explained the book so impressive that whenever I got time I read only this book . I recommend everyone to read this amazing book The Country of the Blind.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by prem singh yadav
The Country of the Blind A Memoir at the End of Sight
An Outing Into the Hid: In 'The Country of the Outwardly weakened', Andrew Leland's stunning story brings perusers into a world they've won't ever see. These totally thrilling stories not simply uncovered knowledge into the issues of visual weakness yet likewise go about as a persuading comparability for embracing the dark in our own lives. Le Land's ability to deliver us into a world we've never seen before is both astounding and enchanting.

'The Country of the Outwardly weakened' is some different option from a set of experiences, it is a material gathering, Andrew Leland's enthusiastic workmanship transcends visual cutoff points by allowing perusers to feel the ecological components through sound, contact, smell and feeling crosses. With each page, we are reminded that, veritable cognizance comes from the profundities of our experiences rather than our eyes - a huge tendency.

Crossing the Sympathy Opening: This book goes past the conventional furthest reaches of a diary by dousing the peruser in a significant experience. We are not just observers as we go with Andrew Leland on his journey of visual lack, we become individuals in his ongoing situation. Thusly, Leland effectively ranges the empathy opening, moving us to look past our own requirements and worth the human inclusion with all its complexity.

An academic kaleidoscope: 'The Country of the Outwardly debilitated' is a creative kaleidoscope that questions our bits of knowledge and doubts about failure, society and ourselves. Leland proficiently joins individual experiences, undeniable information, and social assessment to make a different point of view on visual disability. The result is a lively weaving of considerations that begins our academic interest. Causes us to think about the delicate perspectives that make up our point of view.

A Journal in 5-Words: Andrew Leland spreads out a functional portrayal of his creating world in beautiful sweet plan, without relying upon visuals. His command over language grants perusers to imagine circumstances, feelings and associations that lie past the space of sight. This uncommon method for managing individual creating is totally momentous and perusers will be in surprise of the assortments his words revive.

Embrace Change - 'The Country of the Outwardly weakened' presents solid areas for a for embracing change paying little heed to fear and weakness. Andrew Leland's capacity to share his outing from sightedness to visual inadequacy prompts us to ponder the uncommon power of affirmation nearby our own insurance from change. This book urges us to consider trouble to be an opportunity for improvement and understanding, rather than an obstacle.

Illuminating Perspective: As an obviously debilitated peruser, 'Spot that is known for the Outwardly weakened' was a divulgence to me. Andrew Leland's effective words and individual stories drive us to challenge our own visual impedance's, crippling inclinations and misinformed decisions.

An Excursion of the Cerebrum: 'The Country of the Outwardly disabled' is a captivating encounter that brings us into new space of thought and thought. Andrew Leland's interested and philosophical considerations advance the scrutinizing experience by prompting us to reevaluate seeing the world fittingly. This contemplating trip moves us to search for information and cleverness in unanticipated spots.

Lauding the Hid Legends:- Leland's story is an acknowledgment for the uncelebrated yet genuinely extraordinary people in our lives, who face troubles with strength and coarseness no matter what their shortfall of affirmation. The maker includes the strength of the human spirit, exhorting us that inspiration should be visible as in the most frightening of spots, highlighting the boldness and drive of the outwardly hindered people.

Essentially, 'The Country of the Outwardly weakened: A Diary close to the Completion of Sight' is an insightful gem, prominent for its limit describing, philosophical importance and transformative divulgences.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Bookshare and Accessible Reading Sources

Photo of person's hand on braille text In The Country of the Blind, Andrew Leland sings the praises of Bookshare, an electronic repository of accessible-format books for the disabled. Bookshare was launched in 2001 by Jim Fruchterman, the leader of Benetech, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that develops technologies to assist those with physical and learning disabilities. The Bookshare mission is stated thus: "Bookshare makes reading easier. People with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers can customize their experience to suit their learning style and find virtually any book they need for school, work, or the joy of reading."

Bookshare can be joined by paying a subscription fee or, often, via subsidization by governments or charitable bodies. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offers free access to Bookshare for all students with a print-reading disability. In the UK, a partnership with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) allows parents, students and teachers to use Bookshare services for free. A full list of the international membership partners is available here. Nearly a thousand publishers regularly contribute to the Bookshare library, which offers material available in braille, DAISY (read aloud by a synthetic voice), EPUB, MP3 and Microsoft Word. Other suppliers include libraries, universities, individual authors and volunteers. The stock now numbers over one million books and includes recent releases.

An additional free source of braille and audio materials for disabled people in the US is the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS).

I contacted two blind friends in the UK to ask what services they use. One told me that Bookshare "has an amazingly wide range of material, which would otherwise not be accessible," including obscure textbooks and language learning materials. They both download audiobooks from the RNIB Library (to a smartphone app called EasyReader) and Audible. Hardcopy braille books can also be borrowed from the RNIB Library. One friend reads e-books using a text-to-speech converter on a phone and has an electronic braille display that connects via Bluetooth.

In his memoir, Leland describes his sometimes difficult adjustment to using a screen reader and learning braille. However, he is grateful that, through these and other assistive technologies, the visually disabled are given opportunities to remain bookworms. He writes, "while I'm losing print, I'm not losing literature itself, which exceeds the eyes. … I'm still a reader."

Closeup photo of person using braille by Eren Li, via Pexels

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