Book of the week

The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

"A gentleman asked me what beauty meant to my mind. I must confess I was puzzled at first. But after a minute I answered that beauty was a form of goodness -- and he went away."

I picked this book up expecting struggle and hard-won triumphs, and a glimpse into a world populated by scent and vibration rather than sight and sound.

What I got was a book which L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) might have written if she had no sense of character and plot. Helen Keller made some outstanding strides in her life -- she learned not only to communicate with the world, but to do so with signs, lip-reading and different kinds of Braile, and also learned to read several languages -- but she was not a good writer. Most of her imagery, rather than being a genuine expression of how she "saw" the world, was drawn from what she read, and much of the book uses color imagery, lighting effects and descriptions of scenery to tell the story. I did find this notable, but ultimately disappointing, exception:

Sometimes, however, I go rowing without the rudder. It is fun to try to steer by the scent of watergrasses and lilies, and of bushes that grow on the shore. I use oars with leather bands, which keep them in position on the oarlocks, and I know by the resistance of the water when the oars are evenly poised. In the same manner I can also tell when I am pulling against the current. I like to contend with wind and wave. What is more exhilarating than to make your staunch little boat, obedient to your will and muscle, go skimming lightly over glistening, tilting waves...

Dammit, what does "glistening" mean to her? She lost her sight before she was two years old. Does she still remember it?

Keller wrote the book while she was still in college, and a lot of it consists of glowing accounts of the books she's read, understandable for someone who's led the ultimate sheltered life, but not very interesting. If the book had been written today, it would be in conjunction with a skilled ghost writer who would be able to dredge Keller's brain and come up with a story that really reflects what it is to be blind and deaf in a sighted, hearing world.

However, just when I was fed up with the whole thing, I got to the end of the book and found the section reprinting Keller's letters. These go back to her earliest days of letter writing, and span from when she was only able to use nouns and very simple verbs to her eventual flawless grasp of grammar and punctuation. The real story is told in these letters, and they are everything I hoped the book would be. (But I think it's still useful to read the book, in order to get a sense of the events and people that the letters discuss, and at 106 pages it's not really a hardship.)

"Thank goodness Helen Keller existed," said my fella warmly. "Because without her, we would have no Helen Keller jokes."