In the year 1984, I was in sixth grade, a scholarship child in a private girl school. The eighth graders were reading George Orwell’s 1984 and had plastered the walls with images of our headmistress that read, “Big Sister is Watching YOU.” We didn’t know what it meant, but we understood that it was witty and smart and that that group of girls was particularly beloved by the teachers, headmistress and principle and could get away with such things. Our class, dominated by girls whose anger and sadness ruled their intelligence, was not, I understand now, so beloved.
Though I’d started having trouble seeing the blackboard back in fourth grade, it was not until sixth that I began having trouble reading print. One time in history class, which I loved, I was taking a pop quiz and stared at the purple ditto ink, astonished and afraid because I couldn’t make out a single word. I raised my hand and told Mrs. Clark in a nervous whisper that I wasn’t able to read it. She turned the paper over and there was the quiz! We laughed. I told that story many times in those years when my eye disease seemed merely an odd anomaly, a predicament that presented problems easily solved in a class of 40 with smart caring teachers.
It was also in sixth grade that I was presenting a book report with my friend (with whom I would in another year or two vandalize the school one night with shaving cream), reading notes we’d written with pale blue ink that I suddenly could not read, and I stumbled over my part of the presentation. She laughed and snatched the notes away. It was not mean-spirited. She simply took control of what I’d not been able to do. I stood, as I would so often stand through my teens and twenties, very still, mortified. It was my great shame not to be able to read anymore.
In earlier grades, I’d been a great reader, a cocky little reader who’d gleefully raise her hand to read aloud and took pride in reading ahead while my classmates labored. I’d show off the adult books I was reading, pilfered from my mother’s bookcase, Agatha Christie mysteries, Gone with the Wind.
Some of my favorite memories of childhood are of reading in special places. I remember finishing Little Women while sitting in the branches of a tree in the huge shared backyard of my grandmother’s apartment complex. I remember reading the end of Jane Eyre, tears rolling down my face in the window seat of the library on 9th Avenue, where I’d wait for my mother to get off work at the clothing boutique around the corner on Clement Street. And I remember reading Poe stories on the bus ride out to the SF Zoo to volunteer on Saturday mornings.
By the time I was in eighth Grade, and it was our turn to read 1984, reading was no longer a pleasure but a chore. I never finished it. I bluffed my way through. If I had good lighting, was not tired, and did not mind how slow it went, I could still read for another year or two, but mostly, the act of scanning words with eyeballs had a hole in it. Where the words should be, there was nothing.
I did not get into the fancy high schools of my peers. I went instead to my neighborhood public school, where my mother had gone before me. I received no help and my rebel self wanted none. I had my smarts and the classes were not challenging. They sucked and I hated it all except for ninth grade English Honors.
Mr. Davis squeezed a few more reads out of me–I remember being particularly engrossed by Green Mansions. He had us watch Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, which made a lasting visual impression on me though I could not read the subtitles. He also kept alive for a little while longer the pleasure I took in writing–I’d thankfully taught myself to touch-type the year before on my mom’s manual typewriter. For his class I typed up the last story I would write for a long time. It was about two girls who’d run away. They sat smoking in the McDonald’s on Powell Street. Only one had a pang of regret for the childhood lost and the certainty she’d never go back. I believe that was my last A until college.
Some paltry years of learning flew by, with little school attendance and much teenage debauchery. I cut classes and smoked cigarettes in a café down the street with my best friend–the best friend I still have and the only good take away from that school other than Honors English. I still fancied myself intelligent, a writer. I think I even sometimes dreamed of getting a doctorate someday.
But words and faces were slipping from me: wandering the used bookshop with my friends meant faking it. Looking in used record shops meant looking for recognizable covers with large print. Watching TV meant pretending to see what was going on if it were more than a few feet from me. I took it all in as shame and anger and nursed it with booze and candy.
When I finally dropped out of high school, it was in order to move on to City College. High School was not working. Finally I got help. Finally I learned about an organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic from whom I would receive an achievement award upon my college graduation some years down the line, handed to me in a fancy ceremony in NYC by Tony Randall. Now RFB&D is called Learning Ally and students don’t have to wait for their digital downloads–blind kids are so lucky these days!–but back in the pre-digital stone age, they sent clunky blue boxes of recorded books on tape cassettes via snail mail.
The first book I remember listening to on the plastic companion cassette player was 1984, the aborted read from years earlier. I was completely hooked and listened to it over the course of a night. The best part about reading by listening is that you do not have to worry about your eyes getting tired.
But those little blue boxes were limited. It takes a long time to have people read books onto tape and to process them. It took time for them to arrive in the mail, a delay of one to three weeks. So that sometimes, by the time I received them, I’d forgotten what prompted me to order them. I could not borrow books from friends and I could not often even get ahold of those they were reading, but at least I could read some. Eating chips or smoking while listening to novels was my great escape.
It was wonderful to have access to books again, but there was shame in those blue boxes, shame in listening to books with my ears instead of reading with my eyes. I hid them away from my friends as much as possible.
Although I still listen to books, having them come to me in a digital file that I listen to in a ubiquitous and perfectly quotidian iPhone has changed everything. The shame is gone, or nearly so. There are so many books available to me through blind organizations such as Bookshare, or through universally available sources such as Project Gutenberg and Kindle, that I can get ahold of most everything I want to read quickly and easily. Others I can scan. In fact, I have so many books on my phone that it has, I’m afraid, made me a little more deficient in attention than I once was, but I’ll take the downside with the many upsides of being able to be current with my intellectual interests. And also able to keep up with what’s going on in the world’s intellectual meanderings, such as they are.
This time, when the call to read 1984 shot around the internet, I was able to download and start reading it immediately. Naturally I’m horrified and darkly amused by the ludicrous behavior of this president and his lackeys with their “alternative facts,” but in some ways I’m more concerned about the hypocrisy of so many of my peers who seem already to have forgotten the jokes and apathy that led up to the election. It is trendy to bash this sad sack in the White House but unthinkable to question one’s own culpability.
Honestly, I’ve shied away from the news since the new presidency. An avid listener to NPR since the Gulf War in 1990, last fall found me angry at my radio for the first time for taking Trump seriously on the one hand, and as just an impossible joke on the other. That so many people I knew felt mostly apathy before the election and have turned fanatical since also feels like a betrayal on the order of 1984 itself. “‘The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories.'”
The connections between 1984 and the current state of affairs in politics that put the 68-year-old novel at the top of Amazon’s Bestseller list is obvious, but it ought to be recognized as complicated, as our hero Winston Smith is complicated. If Trump being in the white house suggests the regime of Big Brother, I think we ought to allow for the possibility that we are like the very flawed Winston who can in one breath cling to his humanity as the only weapon against the Party:
“‘If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.'”
And in the next throw away that humanity in the thoughtless acceptance of rebelling:
“‘You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases–to do anything which is likely to cause demoralisation and weaken the power of the Party?’
‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face–are you prepared to do that?’
These words will come back to haunt Winston in the Ministry of Love even before the final betrayal, suggesting an irony that in the very act of rebelling he steps that much closer to those he is rebelling against, towards their destructive utilitarian philosophy that deems the most heinous acts worthy if they further the cause. To lose one’s humanity in the face of fear and anger is too easy and more dangerous if left unrecognized.
*This is essay 6 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Ylang-ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory here*