Friday, February 13, 2004

The Importance of Words

Allow me to direct your attention to a New York Review of Books essay by Roger Shattuck called "A World of Words". The essay is the introduction to Helen Keller's reissued book The World I Live In. The book is not necessarily a sequel to The Story of My Life, but can been seen as such. The essay gives autobiographical information about Keller, but Shattuck's focus is on how Keller became a writer the moment Annie Sullivan taught her finger spelling. Words were always the mediator for Keller, words became her eyes and ears. Shattuck sees Keller's book The World I Live In as evidence of the importance of words to Keller. The book was first published in 1908 and is a collection of essays that moves beyond Keller's own story to address "a variety of challenging subjects--relations among the senses, history of philosophy, religious faith, and the mystery of language." I have not read The World I Live In--yet. I have read The Story of My Life twice, once when I was about 10 and again as an adult. As a kid I was both fascinated and awed by Helen Keller. I don't remember when or how I found out about her but I was about 8 or 9. She became a sort of guiding light for me, a hero, an example of someone who overcame the odds and lived a good and happy life. I read all the books I could about her that an 8 or 9 year-old could understand. My school librarian, Mrs. Barnes (I loved that woman), surprised me one day with two cards she had sent away for; one had the braille alphabet on it in all of it's raised glory of bumps, and the other had the finger alphabet on it. I could have cried. I spent hours teaching myself finger spelling and I still remember it. I tried to learn braille too but with less success; my fingers couldn't tell if there was a group of two bumps or three, they all felt the same. Far from disappointing me, it only served to make me admire Keller more. And then Mrs. Barnes gave me a book about Annie Sullivan, Teacher to Helen, and I found out that Teacher was herself an admirable woman who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her own life. When I was young I wanted to be a teacher for the deaf and blind. But life doesn't always work out the way you want it to when you're 9. However, I am remain inspired by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. I've always planned on reading Keller's other books "someday" (she has many), but haven't gotten around to it. Maybe Shattuck's essay will be the impetus I need to make someday now. Because, as Shattuck concludes his essay,

We are navigating now far from the use of language as a set of arbitrary conventions and within sight of poetry and word realism, in a world of words which have on us virtual effects verging on the real. The reason why we find a convincingly human quality in The Story of My Life and The World I Live In reaches beyond our fascination with the disabled and the handicapped. These books display the redemptive power of language in certain cases, and the power of that language to reach us all. Virtual or real, it works. This resource allowed Helen to write in her closing poem, "A Chant of Darkness": Search out thy blindness. It holdeth Riches past computing.