Becky Libourel Diamond

After author and sociologist Sarah Thornton had a double mastectomy, she opted for breast reconstruction covered by her insurance. But she didn’t get the B-cup “lesbian yoga boobs” she had described to her surgeon. Instead, she got D-cup “silicone aliens” that “didn’t feel female or even human.” She relates this experience with humorous flair, but the result was scholarly: “I now had an overwhelming desire to understand breasts, excavate their meanings, and map out routes to their emancipation.”

Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World) documents her research in the memorably titled Tits Up: What Sex Workers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons, Bra Designers, and Witches Tell Us About Breasts. Her firsthand insight is woven throughout the book, with chapters focused on the “hardworking tits” of sex workers, “lifesaving jugs” of breast milk donors, “treasured chests” that undergo surgery, “active apexes” of the lingerie industry and “holy mammaries” enshrined in religious mythology.

Many women aren’t satisfied with what nature has given them, or they become disenchanted with the effects of gravity, aging or nursing. Thornton goes into detail about how this view has differed throughout history and in various cultures. As she points out, in Anglo American culture, “saggy is a sin” that often leads to surgical procedures, but in Mali, “‘she whose breasts have fallen’ is a respectful term for an older woman.” 

Thornton’s research and interviews are exhaustive, entertaining and enlightening. There are heartbreaking stories, like one about a mother who lost her baby but donated her breast milk; historical links, like the 1968 bra burning phenomenon; and inside information about how the many different variations in breast sizes and shapes cause conundrums for bra and swimsuit manufacturers. In tandem, Thornton addresses a central question: How is it that we look at breasts so much but reflect on them so little? 

Backed up by research, interviews with experts and plenty of fascinating facts, Tits Up is a revelatory look at many different facets of this oh-so-vital body part. As elucidated by the founder of the “Fool’s Journey” pagan retreat Thornton attends, “Every breast has a story. Let’s work on changing the narrative.” One thing for sure, you’ll never think of boobs in the same way again. 

After reading Sarah Thornton’s revelatory Tits Up, you’ll never look at boobs the same way again.

An astonishing 30-40% of food goes to waste in the U.S. “As well as being financially foolish, wasting food damages the planet because it accelerates climate change,” notes food writer and cookbook author Sue Quinn in her latest cookbook, Second Helpings: Delicious Dishes to Transform Your Leftovers, which aims to keep food from our own kitchens out of the trash. Quinn kicks off with a chapter of recipes for base dishes (soup, pasta bake, risotto, to name a few) that teach the reader skills that can be used for everyday meals. She moves to sections on small plates, light meals, main meals, sweet things and bits and bobs, the last of which includes ways to incorporate leftovers such as mashed potatoes, salad greens and the spoonfuls and scrapings left in various types of jarred foods.The book’s structure gives many different options for each recipe, resulting in numerous dishes to use up the items you have on hand. I made the roast dinner enchiladas using some cooked chicken from the night before, sliced peppers and jarred tomatoes, which transformed into an amazing sauce when simmered with Quinn’s suggested mix of spices. Second Helpings is the perfect blueprint for repurposing leftover food into other nutritious, delicious meals.

Second Helpings is the perfect blueprint for repurposing leftover food into other nutritious, delicious meals.

Memoirs are expected to be intimate, laying the groundwork for an author’s backstory and how they got to where they are currently. But it is less common for a personal account to be rendered in a way that’s hilarious, clever, profound and poignant at the same time, particularly one with food as its focus.

Geraldine DeRuiter’s If You Can’t Take the Heat: Tales of Food, Feminism, and Fury provides all these elements and more. As the James Beard Award-winning blogger who penned a viral response to celebrity chef Mario Batali’s ill-advised #MeToo “apology” (in which he shared a recipe for cinnamon rolls), DeRuiter is no stranger to writing about culinary escapades. In this meaty series of essays, she travels from her childhood encounters with food to the present day, with many experiences in between that are as entertaining as her gifted voice and knack for description.

Subjects that she covers include religion, teendom, dating and marriage, all the while sharing life lessons that will resonate with many readers. The result is a memoir that is raw, revealing and relatable, with particular attention given to challenges women face in patriarchal society. For example, in a chapter hilariously titled “The Only Thing in My Oven,” she defends her decision not to have children and smartly draws parallels between what others call “maternal instinct” with her desire, since, childhood, to bake. As she explains, “I think a prerequisite to being a parent is that you should want to be one. And there’s a long diatribe here that I could go on about, but simply: parenthood should always be a choice. But baking didn’t feel like a decision. It was a calling.”

Her articulations are sincere and nostalgic, particularly in the story of how she learned about her past and ancestral roots, and how she has processed (and is still processing) what she has discovered. She doesn’t shy away from grappling with childhood trauma, but If You Can’t Take the Heat is by no means depressing. Quite the opposite. DeRuiter’s divulging is comforting and significant to both women and those who have made a similar culinary journey. Readers will find this witty series of vignettes humorous and enlightening.

Geraldine DeRuiter braids her love of food with feminist critique in her hilarious, relatable memoir If You Can’t Take the Heat.

In most parts of the United States, homeowners share the land with herds of deer seen nibbling on garden plants, wandering through neighborhoods and running across highways. They are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a time when they were not so abundant. But as poet and journalist Erika Howsare explains in The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship With Our Wild Neighbors, the clearing of forests and constant unchecked hunting that Europeans wrought upon the land in colonial America began to decimate deer habitats and communities. By the early 20th century, deer populations had “gone down to zero” in many areas, only to rebound as conservation efforts allowed deer to multiply in droves throughout the U.S.   

Through carefully wrought prose and evocative imagery, Howsare depicts how deer and human populations have both relied on and butted up against one another for eons. Traveling through history and culture, she provides insight into the practical, environmental and spiritual “kinship” between our species: Cherokee hunters were mindful of Awi Usdi, a white deer who reminded them to ask each felled deer for forgiveness; villagers in the West Midlands of England celebrate the animal with a centuries-old pagan tradition called the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance; and deer riders abound in mythology, such as the Hindu god Chandra and Slavic hunters called vile, who bewitch men with their beauty. 

The animal, Howsare writes, “perfectly symbolizes the way we live with nature now, and the way we will carry on into whatever weird, paradoxical future awaits.” Her rigorous research, along with personal anecdotes, relates the impact of human intervention on the deer population and the damage that overpopulation wreaks on forests. Howsare rides along on a culling mission with Princeton, New Jersey’s sole animal control officer, and she discusses other methods government and wildlife officials have used to reduce their numbers, like sport hunting and sterilization.

Throughout the book, Howsare returns to a proposition stated in her introduction: “To look at our modern relationship with deer . . . means asking the biggest question of all: How will we live on this planet?” The Age of Deer is a thorough, eye-opening invitation to ponder our own relationships with the natural world, practically and reverently.

Erika Howsare’s The Age of Deer invites us to consider the practical, environmental and spiritual relationships we share with a most ubiquitous species.

Makeup is typically linked to beautification—a palette of products marketed to make us feel more confident, attractive and put-together. This includes eyeliner, often applied in tandem with eyeshadow and mascara to enhance the eyes.

But as Zahra Hankir (Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World) explains in her new book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History, eyeliner is so much more than just a beauty tool. Starting with her own Egyptian and Lebanese background and subsequent relationship with kohl (eyeliner made with naturally sourced materials, including ground galena or soot), she describes how women in her family have used this cosmetic for generations as a steadfast support that “protected and empowered my proud lineage,” and fostered a grounding sense of community.

This personal interest in kohl led Hankir to track down and record the historical and cultural significance of eyeliner in various formulations over time. Her research is exhaustive, touching on cultures from the Middle East and Africa to India, Latin America and Japan. Each chapter focuses on a different culture or individual(s) and their relationship to eyeliner, weaving historical and cultural facts with modern-day pop-culture references and cosmetic industry statistics.

The result is a cultural perspective that is eye-opening and surprisingly intimate. Hankir peels back layers of history to reveal how eyeliner became so ingrained in various societies over millennia. She covers its more obvious aesthetic nature, with the steadfast goal “to beautify, enhance, or enlarge the eye,” as well as its role as a form of protection from evil (as believed in ancient Egypt and in some present-day Arab, Asian and African communities), a form of sunblock (as worn throughout the Middle East), rebellion (think The Crown’s Princess Diana speaking of Prince Charles’ infidelity with dark-rimmed eyes on BBC) and expression and identity (such as the signature thick black winged eyeliner worn by late singer Amy Winehouse).

Hankir’s journalism background shines through, as she includes a comprehensive number of interviews and personal stories to back up the facts she references. And her own reflections lend weight to the close-up and personal feeling conveyed throughout. Eyeliner: A Cultural History is a thorough retrospective of a product that has endured over time and continues to play a significant role for cultures around the globe.

Zahra Hankir’s Eyeliner offers an eye-opening and surprisingly intimate cultural perspective on the titular cosmetic.

“We’re getting it wrong in this beautiful, ravaged place,” writes author Bryce Andrews (Down From the Mountain) in Holding Fire: A Reckoning With the American West. “Over and over, we find a lovely valley, shoot it through the ecological heart, grind its bones to dust, and pour the foundation of an edifice less interesting than what existed before.” It is his ah-ha moment in this vibrant, candid account of his experiences working as a cowboy in Montana.

Although it’s labeled as a memoir, Holding Fire also has many elements of regional nonfiction, natural history and even social science. As a result, it is structured in a fresh and unpredictable way, with each chapter opening a new window into Andrews’ thoughts, feelings and prior experiences. Framed around the inheritance of his grandfather’s gun, a Smith & Wesson revolver, each reflection focuses on a particular idea that has helped Andrews comprehend the fragility of life and inevitability of death.

As Andrews ruminates on his personal history, he dots his musings with descriptive, emotive prose. “In quiet moments all through childhood,” he writes, “I entertained a Western fantasy in which the sky’s broad dome appeared first, its sun a magnet tugging upward on my heart.” Guns were never a big part of his life until he lived and worked on a ranch, where he had to hunt and keep critters at bay. These encounters provided life lessons and new proficiencies, particularly when hunting with fellow rancher Roger, whom he calls “the lodge’s wrangler and outfitter.” But the more Andrews lived with the gun, the more it led him to realize the destruction caused by violence. He eventually forged the gun into a useful gardening tool, learning blacksmithing in the process.

Holding Fire is a meditation on the past, present and future of not only Andrews’ own life but also the lives of all mortal creatures.

Bryce Andrews’ vibrant, candid account of working as a cowboy in Montana provides a moving meditation on the fragility of life and inevitability of death.

Behaviors and beliefs are often perpetuated throughout families, when what we learned as children continues to show up in our families and relationships as adults. Sometimes these behaviors stem from childhood wounds that have led to negative repeating patterns.

In The Origins of You: How Breaking Family Patterns Can Liberate the Way We Live and Love, therapist and relationship expert Vienna Pharaon explains how to tap into the origin stories of these wounds in a productive way. Although naming the wounds we received during our upbringings can be a difficult and painful process, Pharaon writes that it is the “first step toward your healing.” The book is divided into four parts: our roots, our wounds and their origins, changing your relationship behaviors, and your reclamation. There’s an emphasis throughout on “origin healing work,” which is “an integration of family systems work and psychodynamic theory.”

By digging into her backlog of over 20,000 hours of work as a therapist and her Instagram community of over 600,000 followers, Pharaon puts feelings such as unworthiness and an inability to trust in context—along with these feelings’ subsequent destructive behaviors, such as being self-critical, not living authentically and avoiding honest communication. However, no client confidentiality is breached. Clients’ identities are disguised, and sometimes several clients are combined to emphasize a point. She also uses her own story as an example, referring back to her journey and growth time and again. These reality checks help the reader understand that they are not alone in their pain and show how addressing these origin wounds can be healing and transformative.

Thoughtful self-help exercises with suggestions on how to best read, process and digest this information are woven throughout The Origins of You, and Pharaon feels like a cheerleader and confidant as she offers honest, straightforward advice. “What if . . . digging into your origin story,” she asks, “could yield the relief and the exact answers you’ve been looking for all along?”

Therapist Vienna Pharaon is a cheerleader and confidant throughout The Origins of You, helping readers break negative family patterns and find healing.

Egg

Eggs are the ubiquitous breakfast food, served up every day in kitchens and restaurants around the world. They are also a cornerstone for many savory dishes and added to baked goods to provide richness and leavening. But have you ever considered the egg’s importance beyond its vast utility as a food source?

In Egg: A Dozen Ovatures, author Lizzie Stark (Pandora’s DNA) dishes up 12 ways eggs have affected and benefited humans. Blending fascinating factoids, historical tales and her own personal stories, Stark highlights the remarkable, the unusual and the extreme.

Each chapter focuses on a different topic, describing how eggs have been treasured as artistic objects, hunted by eccentric egg collectors, traded as a precious commodity, used in scientific cures and even sent to the moon. Throughout, Stark fills readers in on related practices and definitions, such as egg candling, “a technique used since ancient times, [that] employs light—a candle in the early days, and later electric lamps—to reveal what’s under the shell.” Such historical and scientific facts are combined with contemporary cultural touchstones in a style that is witty, engaging and descriptive.

Stark also adds moments from her own personal history, which provides a perfect balance to the data points and statistics. From egg experiments with her dad and decorating Ukrainian pysanky eggs with her mom, to her decision to have her ovaries removed to stave off the high likelihood of developing ovarian cancer due to an inherited gene mutation, Stark is skilled at making connections between eggs’ symbolic meaning and real-life significance. Egg is surprising, revealing and entertaining. After reading this delightful book, you will never look at an egg the same way again.

Blending fascinating factoids, historical tales and her own personal stories, Lizzie Stark uncovers the remarkable, unusual and extreme cultural history of the egg.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as the saying goes. This expression celebrates acceptance, affirming that the appearance of a person or object doesn’t have to align with beauty norms to be lovely. It’s a refreshing theme that runs throughout The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption by art, design, nature and science writer Katy Kelleher.

A frequent contributor to The Paris Review, where she formerly authored a column on color called Hue’s Hue, Kelleher writes candidly about her personal experiences as a home and design writer, which involved crafting descriptive write-ups of “beautiful things and their various charms.” But during this journey, she discovered that no matter which glittering objects she wrote about, the ugliness of animal cruelty, worker exploitation, toxic chemicals and other grisly realities still filtered through the beauty. “I came to accept that desire and repulsion exist in tandem,” she writes, “and that the most poignant beauties are interthread with ugliness.”

Divided into 10 thought-provoking chapters focusing on subjects such as flowers, gemstones, silk, perfume, china and even glass, Kelleher skillfully dissects many kinds of things that humans have found desirable over the years. She intertwines these discussions with her personal definition of beauty and reminds readers that beautiful things can be useful for more than their looks. For example, fine dishes are for gathering, feeding and sharing, not just display.

Combining elements of science, history, consumerism and mysticism, Kelleher’s prose is lively, informative and, at times, humorous. Her personal attachment to the concept of beauty turns what could have been a dry, aesthetic exploration into something soul-cleansing and restorative. Ultimately, her hope is that The Ugly History of Beautiful Things “will help you open your eyes to the beauty that already surrounds you, beauty that already exists in your cities and homes and backyards.”

Katy Kelleher skillfully illuminates the ugly shadows cast by some of our world’s most beautiful objects, including flowers, gemstones and silk.

Ice

Ice might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of coveted “luxury” goods. In fact, many Americans take ice for granted as a now-ubiquitous product that is dispensed out of their refrigerators and can be purchased in bags from nearly every grocery store, convenience store and gas station.

But as Amy Brady (co-editor of The World as We Knew It) explains in her new book, Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, ice has indeed been a very “hot commodity” throughout history. Flash forward to today on our rapidly warming planet, and ice is in even higher demand. This paradox was not lost on Brady. As she writes, “The irony lay in the fact that I was driven to seek out and consume ice because of a phenomenon that’s eliminating ice on the planet.”

Amy Brady, author of ‘Ice,’ recounts the lost history of the doctor who invented the ice machine.

Brady found ice to be an untapped subject and did enormous amounts of research to fill in the gaps in its history. Divided into four parts that each focuses on an aspect of ice—obsession, food and drink, ice sports, and the future—Ice outlines how frozen water “profoundly has shaped the nation’s history and culture.” Commentary from food writers, scientists, physicians and historians are interspersed with historic resources such as newspaper articles, diaries and journals, creating unique connections between the past and present.

Historical facts and statistics help contextualize the important role ice has played in events like Prohibition, when breweries pivoted to other business ventures that would make use of their existing ice cellars. (Yuengling opened a dairy, Anheuser-Busch made infant formula and Pabst sold cheese.) Another especially interesting chapter covers ice’s use as a medical treatment for injuries, chronic ailments and even cancer. Throughout the book, Brady uses timelines to help illustrate the trajectory of ice’s journey from an amenity to an everyday item, emphasizing how quickly it became mainstream. Taken all together, Ice makes an important case for securing the future of those freezing cold cubes in a warming world.

Amy Brady uses commentary from food writers, scientists and physicians to illuminate how something as commonplace as ice came to shape America’s history and culture.

Humans are fascinated with weird and unusual phenomena—hence the popularity of books, magazines, television shows and podcasts focusing on “unexplained” subjects such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. 

In The Theory of Everything Else: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird, comedian and co-host of the “No Such Thing as a Fish” podcast Dan Schreiber takes peculiar theories about some of life’s greatest mysteries and spins them into nonstop hilarity. Many of the ideas presented here are so implausible—such as the hypothesis that time travelers sank the Titanic—that Schreiber starts with a disclaimer, a suggestion that readers should “let the ideas alter your universe for a few seconds . . . but for God’s sake, don’t believe in a single one of them.” In fact, he uses the word batshit over and over to describe these unconventional beliefs and bizarre encounters, while also demonstrating that investigating such baffling notions (whether to solve them, prove them or disprove them) is often what leads people to discover something closer to the truth.

Schreiber divides the book into three main sections that cover the importance of unconventional thought, scientific theories that have been “rejected” and eccentric beliefs that are woven throughout our daily lives. His research is extensive, covering all areas of the globe and a variety of cultures as he considers the possibility of a hollow Earth, the extinction of pubic lice, the chance that reptilian aliens walk among us and many more far-fetched and otherwise wacky notions. There are connections to famous people such as Ringo Starr (whose grandmother was known as “the voodoo queen of Liverpool”), tennis player Novak Djokovic (who believes there are ancient lost pyramids in Bosnia) and the British royal family (yes, Prince Philip harbored an interest in UFOs). Several scientists who made groundbreaking discoveries are included as well, since they also embraced unusual theories or beliefs.

Humorous illustrations are featured side by side with historic photographs, and each “batshit” story or theory is counterbalanced with a reality check of facts and statistics. As Schreiber sums up, “Whether we like it or not, many of these alternative thinkers have shaped the world we live in today.” The Theory of Everything Else is a wild, witty, entertaining ride into the funhouse of the unexplained and the unexplainable. Hop on and enjoy the trip.

The existence of ghosts, aliens and cryptids will seem like tame notions by the time you finish Dan Schreiber’s hilarious book about life’s greatest mysteries and most peculiar theories.

A stigma continues to exist around blindness, even though blind people are a vital part of society as writers, actors, engineers, artists and more. Blindness has reliably appeared at or near the top of the list of “most-feared disabilities” in polls and surveys for decades, a fact Andrew Leland relays in his debut book, The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight. Through eloquent prose, Leland vividly details his experiences with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disorder that has slowly caused his vision to deteriorate and will eventually result in total blindness. Because he still has some sight, he is able to “perceive everything with a paradoxical double vision: through sighted eyes, and through blind ones.”

“There are very few blind people who live their lives carrying around the constant feeling of aggrieved sadness and tragedy.” Read our interview with Andrew Leland.

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. Along the way, he chronicles the backstory of how he discovered he had RP, the genetic aspects of the disease and a general history of blindness. Other chapters focus on topics such as both low- and high-tech sight-assisted gadgets for blind people, national blindness organizations and their differing philosophies, blind activists (including folks from the Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley) and medical therapies for blindness (such as the gene-editing tool CRISPR, gene therapy and wearable technology). Leland interviews myriad people with varying levels of blindness to get diverse perspectives, interspersing their accounts with statistics and expert commentary.

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. As he movingly writes, “As I lose my vision, I want to cultivate this picture of blindness—in Oscar [his son], and Lily [his wife], in myself, and in the world—of a blind person who’s an active protagonist in his own life.”

Facing blindness due to a degenerative eye disorder, Andrew Leland provides a raw and honest depiction of the realities of his diagnosis and what it feels like to straddle two worlds.

Writer, editor and podcaster Andrew Leland was diagnosed with an incurable degenerative retinal disease in childhood. As he approached middle age and his retinitis pigmentosa (RP) advanced, Leland found himself in a liminal state: not yet blind, but experiencing enough visual impairment to understand what a future without sight would look like. In his thought-provoking memoir, The Country of the Blind, Leland explores how the transition from sighted to blind is affecting his life, his view of himself and his relationships while diving deep into the history, politics and rich culture of blindness.

You write quite a bit about the realities, both physical and emotional, of RP. What was the effect of expressing these experiences while writing your book?
It was powerfully, unmistakably therapeutic. I began the book awash in a sea of misconceptions, generalizations, assumptions and confusions; what an immense gift it was to be given the opportunity to spend three years rigorously interrogating, investigating, elucidating and defusing them! One side effect of that extended introspection, however, was that if I was self-conscious about blindness before, now I’m profoundly, professionally self-aware in ways that don’t always feel especially healthy. A lot of people with RP say they don’t notice any gradual changes in their vision, but instead complain of sudden, cataclysmic transition points every few years. Why did they experience sudden declines, whereas I felt a more or less constant awareness of the gradual changes in my vision? My doctor gently suggested that as a writer immersed in a project like mine, I may be more attuned to the microlevel changes in vision.

Read our review of ‘The Country of the Blind’ by Andrew Leland.

It was useful to study these changes while writing the book, but there are days when it feels like a burden and a distraction to be so persistently obsessed with how much vision I have, how much I’ve lost and what it all means. I’m looking forward to letting go of some of that acute sensitivity to my own experience, though I suspect that might be a lost cause at this point.

You question whether vision deserves its spot at the top of the hierarchy of senses. As your RP has progressed, how have your thoughts changed regarding the degrees of importance people assign to different senses?
Our brains are wonderfully multimodal in their apprehension of the world. What we might experience as a purely visual activity—looking for a cup of coffee on the table, for instance—actually contains a great deal of information beyond sight. We’re gathering tactile cues (fingers brushing the table as they move toward the hot cup), auditory signals (the clink of a fingernail as it connects with the ceramic mug), even olfactory indicators (the steam rising off the coffee). I’ve had to turn up these nonvisual channels as my vision has gradually turned down. Looking for a cup with my fingers might strike an onlooker as a fumbling way of going about things, but one quickly grows accustomed to it. It’s not a magical blind tactile adventure; I’m just finding the cup like I always have, albeit in a different style. If I’m in a frame of mind where I’m mourning the loss of my vision, this can feel like a diminishment, knocked a few rungs down the ladder of the senses. How much easier it was to do things visually! But my day-to-day experience, on the whole, underscores the fact that vision doesn’t really deserve its elevated status. The brain is plastic, and can settle into other modalities quite comfortably.

You write, “I’ll never be native to blindness, the way that those born blind are.” Can you elaborate on how your experience of losing something you once had differs from being native to blindness?
I think there are advantages and disadvantages to being congenitally blind (from birth) versus adventitiously blind (a phrase that always makes me think of a blind adventurer). The congenitally blind—if they’re lucky enough to have early access to good blindness training—have the cognitive advantage of wiring their brains nonvisually from the start. They’ll read Braille faster than I ever will, even if I make it my full-time job to increase my reading speed: It’s like being a native speaker. I’ve met a number of congenitally blind people who bristle at the ubiquitous term (some would call it a euphemism) vision loss. They haven’t lost any such thing! For this reason, I have wondered if those blind from birth have an easier time accepting and celebrating their blind identity. But these sorts of generalizations only go so far. So much depends on the environment one grows up in, and there are many congenitally blind adults who have to work through the damage of childhoods spent sheltered from the world, with loving families who have abysmally low expectations for their independence and abilities.

The adventitiously blind, even though they have to catch up on blindness skills, have the advantage of having grown up with an intuitive understanding of the shared but largely unspoken grammar of the visual world. This includes everything from the semiotics of color (how to explain why red is angry, or blue calm?) to the infinite stream of gestures, shapes and objects (USPS mail-carrier sacks; Day of the Dead decorations; elephant skin) that are rarely described. I ran across an account of a blind person saying that they had no idea how people held their arms when they’re being sworn in by court clerks. What does “raise your right arm” mean? Is it an angled, “Sieg Heil”-style salute? Or does it go straight up, like a grade schooler waiting to be called on?

In short, the congenitally blind might have less work to do to find comfort in the world of blindness, and perhaps the adventitiously blind will find it easier to intuit many aspects of the visual world we all live in.

What would you say to people who instinctively think of blindness as sad or tragic?
It’s a harmful but understandable mistake. In one sense, they’re not wrong. The experience of losing vision after living with sight is unavoidably painful. But that pain is, ideally, temporary: One mourns the loss of sight, and perhaps there will always be occasional twinges of remorse or frustration, but there are very few blind people who live their lives carrying around the constant feeling of aggrieved sadness and tragedy. I think it comes down to a kind of emotional neuroplasticity. In addition to the sensory adjustments (learning to navigate traffic by ear, or knowing when chicken is done by the way it feels when you slice it), we can also learn to process difficult feelings, so that something that once felt tragic and insurmountable eventually becomes benign, normal. This is an idea that I’ve found many intelligent, compassionate sighted people have an incredibly difficult time accepting. The received sense of blindness as a tragedy runs very deeply and stubbornly through the culture. Nearly every blind person I’ve met has had the experience of casually going about their day—shopping, traveling, whatever—and having their good mood shattered by the noxious, unsolicited sympathy of strangers (or family, for that matter): Bless you. I’m so sorry.

“One mourns the loss of sight, and perhaps there will always be occasional twinges of remorse or frustration, but there are very few blind people who live their lives carrying around the constant feeling of aggrieved sadness and tragedy.”

Artificial intelligence has received quite a bit of play in the press lately. What are your feelings about the possible uses of this technology for blind people?
Like the disabled community more broadly, blind people don’t just benefit from advances in technology, they often drive them. Blind people were early adopters and often collaborators on the development of some of the technological tools that underpin today’s AI revolution, from synthetic speech (think Siri or Alexa) to the origins of “machine vision,” e.g., advances in scanning and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) that first automated the process of making printed books accessible to blind readers.

There’s a great app called Be My Eyes, which connects blind people with sighted volunteers who temporarily access the camera on the blind user’s phone, allowing them to read the recipe on a box of brownies or answer queries like “Does this shirt match these pants?” Be My Eyes recently released a feature called “virtual volunteer,” in which OpenAI’s GPT-4 image-to-text technology will replace those human volunteers for a wide range of tasks.

But just as there are tasks for which a Be My Eyes user might prefer a human volunteer (in the case of a more subjective judgment, perhaps, like describing a photo of a loved one), technology will never replace the human interdependence that’s as much a hallmark of the disabled experience as our reliance on (and obsession with) tech.

While discussing the stigma attached to blind people’s use of canes to get around, you said that you sometimes felt like an impostor while using one. Has that feeling of fraudulence changed over time?
The feeling of fraudulence was at its worst when I first tentatively brought the cane out in public, when I really felt like a sighted person carrying a cane like an affectation. Since then, I’ve continued to lose vision, and the cane feels more immediately necessary. Now that I know (from painful experience) the kind of mayhem I can cause for myself and others if I try to travel without it, and how much more quickly and confidently I move with it, I don’t have nearly as much ambivalence. It’s become my trusty sidekick.

I still feel fraudulence around blindness more broadly, though. I sometimes feel reluctant to call myself blind when I still have enough residual vision to recognize faces and read large print.

This is shifting, too, but slowly. I’m consciously working to accept the blind parts of myself as sufficiently blind for me to embrace the identity as my own. That feeling of acceptance, which I’m arriving at not only by losing more vision but also by immersing myself in the history, culture and communities of blindness, is one of the biggest gifts that writing the book gave me.

“I’m consciously working to accept the blind parts of myself as sufficiently blind for me to embrace the identity as my own.”

Can you tell us your definition of what you call “the blind sense of humor”? Has your own sense of humor been influenced by your experience of blindness?
I was surprised by how much I read and thought about Samuel Beckett while writing this book, but I think it’s because his sensibility feels connected to the blind sense of humor: the ability to look at an impossible experience and find a kind of transcendent absurdity in it. I really hate the idea of “cheering up” someone who is going through a difficult time. Pouring sugar and sunshine into darkness and pain feels artificial and to me only exacerbates and underscores the intractability of the problem. But comedy that accepts the difficulty and finds humor within it—that’s the good stuff.

There are two memoirs by writers with RP that were important to me as I began thinking seriously about what I was going through: Jim Knipfel’s Slackjaw and Ryan Knighton’s Cockeyed. Both books helped me see blindness as a kind of Beckettian slapstick, in which physical mishaps open the door to an existential shift in one’s relationship with the world. No matter how skillful you are as a blind person, there are inevitable moments of apologizing to lampposts, sinks that turn out to be urinals or (as one blind blogger put it) “jalapeños in the oatmeal.” The blind sense of humor is the ability to find the hilarity and joy that lies coiled in every one of these daily absurdities.

“No matter how skillful you are as a blind person, there are inevitable moments of apologizing to lampposts, sinks that turn out to be urinals or (as one blind blogger put it) ‘jalapeños in the oatmeal.'”

Do you think a cure will ever be found for RP?
Retinal specialists have been telling me that a breakthrough is just around the corner since I was diagnosed nearly 25 years ago. To be fair, there has been real scientific progress, even if there’s still nothing to stop the ongoing degeneration of my retinas. My attitude in general about cures is: Keep up the good work, science, and give me a call if there’s something definitive you can do to help. In the meantime, I’m going to work on figuring out how to lead a fulfilling life as a blind person. The alternative—obsessing over Google alerts about new clinical trials and miracle drugs, year after year, decade after decade—feels entirely counterproductive to the emotional work I’m doing to accept blindness.

How are ableism and cures interrelated?
There’s nothing particularly ableist about a scientist trying to find a cure for blindness. The problem comes from doctors’ and researchers’ ignorance about the lived experience of blind people. It’s far too common to receive a diagnosis of RP from a doctor who has no sense of the possibilities of a joyful and productive blind life; with proper training, one might not even need to change careers. And on the research side, there’s a similar tendency to paint blindness as a quasi-terminal disaster in the service of fundraising: John’s life was destroyed when he lost his vision. Won’t you donate to prevent his daughter from sharing the same fate? This rhetoric reinforces the low expectations and stigma that define blindness in the public imagination.

Looking back at the process of writing this book, was there anything you would have done differently?
Early in the reporting process, one of my sources—a sighted historian—asked me who else I was talking to. I rattled off the names of blind MacArthur geniuses and Guggenheim fellows I’d already booked interviews with. He praised me for assembling such an impressive coterie of highly accomplished blind people, but then he admonished me to make sure I also spoke with blind people at the margins, who were far more representative of blind life in the U.S. than the decorated, overeducated blind folks I was initially drawn to.

I took his advice, and did talk to blind people working in sheltered workshops or refilling vending machines or who were unemployed, sometimes houseless and surviving on government assistance. But in the end, I still ended up focusing more on the blind people who I aspired to emulate as I entered the world of blindness. The book is, in part, my attempt to rehabilitate the image of blindness for myself (and my readers), and I think at least superficially, it’s easier to make that case by profiling successful blind artists, writers, entrepreneurs and scientists—all of whom face tremendous barriers of their own—than it is among the blind people living at the margins. But if I had another three years to write the book, or another 300 pages, I would have done more reporting on blindness, poverty and unemployment. I plan on continuing to write about disability, so I’ll hopefully get that chance soon.

What are you working on next?
At the moment I’m particularly interested in the question of how the process of making something accessible to someone with a disability—an audio description of a TV show for a blind person, say, or a plain-language translation of a complicated text for someone with an intellectual disability—changes the meaning of the information that’s being conveyed. One thing I learned in writing the book, and becoming blind, is that the experience of disability changes one’s relationship not just with other people and the physical, built world but also with information itself. In the case of blindness, the way I read, watch and listen has been radically transformed. This doesn’t just change my identity as a media consumer; it has profound implications for the way I understand and access the world. And I’m beginning to see how this dynamic plays out with other disabilities, as well: Deafness, autism and mobility and intellectual disabilities all have fascinating and complicated relationships with language and communication. So I may be working toward a larger project around these ideas of disability and information. We’ll see.

 

 

 

We talked to author Andrew Leland about his thought-provoking and contemplative memoir, The Country of the Blind, which explores how the transition from sighted to blind is affecting Leland’s life, his view of himself and his relationships. It also dives deep into the history, politics and rich culture of blindness.

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