The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

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4 thoughts on “The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books”

  1. This is excellent, i especially like the fact that her favorite, most read and worn book was the Bible. Her socialist views show she was a student of it. Although not socialism as we would view it today…i would be very much interested in reading her political views based on this new understanding of her library.

  2. Hi CJ, thanks for reading! Yes, Helen’s relationship to Christianity is very interesting–she was a Swedenborgian, and wrote a book called My Religion: https://archive.org/details/myreligion00hele.
    And her early socialist/political writings are collected in Out of the Dark: https://archive.org/details/outdarkessaysle01kellgoog
    I’m planning on recording some of these in the coming weeks and would be interested to hear if any of them strike you as particularly timely…

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