Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006


Let's Lift Him Up Where He Belongs

by Deborah Kendrick

A man and woman lean over an archival box of documents.
Diane Croft, vice president for publishing at National Braille Press, and Mike Mellor, author of a new biography of Louis Braille, examine Louis Braille's letters at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, France.

(Review of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by C. Michael Mellor, National Braille Press, 133 print pages, 439 Braille pages, four volumes; $25 softcover Braille or electronic edition; $35 plus $5 handling hardcover print; $50 hardcover Braille.)

From the Editor: I cannot recall another instance in which the publication of a book simultaneously in print and Braille has caused such a stir. Perhaps the first time that National Braille Press (NBP) pulled off the miracle of getting out a Harry Potter book in Braille on almost the same date as the print edition hit the bookstores made a bigger splash, but this time the story is of interest exclusively to admirers of Louis Braille. Several years ago the author, C. Michael Mellor, discovered a cache of hitherto unknown letters written by Braille and wrote his biography around them. The print edition is truly a coffee table volume, with a number of line drawings, pictures, and reproductions of the newly discovered Braille letters with translation. The Braille edition includes exhaustive descriptions of the visual elements of the print book as well as the complete text.

The NBP staff's dedication to the memory and legacy of Louis Braille and their determination to do this project right are truly laudable. This book is a must read for everyone who loves Braille.

Deborah Kendrick is a professional writer and journalist, a lifelong user of Braille, and a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio board of directors. Here is her review of the Braille edition of A Touch of Genius:

It's a powerful moment at any gathering of the National Federation of the Blind when a thousand or more voices begin chanting, "We know who we are, and we'll never go back." Indeed the solidarity of any community is reinforced by the knowledge of its own history and roots. To know "who we are," in other words, we must also know from whence we have come and who has gone before us.
With that basic tenet in mind, it is with a blend of incredulity and gratitude that I read these words on the National Braille Press Web site: "Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius is the first-ever full-color biography to include thirty-one never-before-translated letters, some written by Braille's own hands,"--incredulity that it has taken some two hundred years since the birth of the man who gave us literacy for his story and voice to come together in this new book, and gratitude to C. Michael Mellor for recognizing the magnitude of what he was seeing when he first laid eyes on these wonderful letters.

In A Touch of Genius the story of Louis Braille's life is recounted with more fact and less sentimentality than in most accounts. Born in 1809 in Coupvray, France, Braille was the last child of adoring parents. Had they been less so, in fact, it is reasonable to speculate that he might not have gone on to become the exceptional teacher, musician, and inventor that he was. At age three, imitating the work of his harness-maker father in the shop, the little boy injured his eye with a sharp instrument. Again the what-if's sing out since, if he had received better medical treatment, he might not have had the sympathetic reaction in the other eye that led to total blindness. But the child did become totally blind and fortunately for all of us of ensuing generations around the world, his parents continued to adore and nurture him.

Unheard of in those days, Louis Braille actually attended regular school with sighted children in Coupvray for a time, his intelligence shining among sighted peers. At age ten he was accepted into the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles, the Paris school for the blind founded by Valentin Haüy. There, in his midteens, he recognized the value of the "night writing" code brought to the school's attention by Charles Barbier. Louis Braille rebuilt that code from the ground up, so to speak, tweaking and perfecting it for years. A gifted musician (he not only taught at the school but served as organist in churches and performed solo and with others for the entertainment of those in France's upper social echelon), he also devised the first code for Braille music notation--the same code used by blind musicians around the world today.

Mellor provides clear accounts of the individuals, political climate, and social attitudes of the era that together had an impact on the life of Louis Braille and the progress of his brilliant invention. We learn of a great humanitarian who founded the school, a somewhat cruel ophthalmologist who exploited blind children for his own agenda, and Braille's beloved teacher, Alexandre François-René Pignier, who directed the school for some twenty years and remained Braille's lifelong treasured friend.

Where the book is at its best, however, is in the words and voice of Louis Braille himself. Through his letters we see a gentle, brilliant, and devout young man, a man who, in genuine modesty, gave credit at times to others for his own work, who was profoundly appreciative of the gifts of family, friends, and nature. Although many of the letters reproduced in the print edition (and described in detail in the Braille edition) are written in Braille's own hand, in straight legible lines, he sometimes apologizes in them for his "scribbles."

Through his letters we also get a small sense of the physical suffering Braille endured for much of his life. Mellor writes that Braille's father, a master craftsman, must have been appalled at first sight of the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles, when he delivered his ten-year-old son there for the first time in 1819. The 200-year-old building, a former seminary and prison, was dilapidated outside and clammy, dark, and dank with narrow, rickety stairways inside. "The school piped in filthy, untreated water from the nearby Seine for cooking and washing," Mellor writes. Children were allowed one bath per month.

Thus, like many children and adults at the school, Braille contracted tuberculosis in his teens and lived with the ravages of the then untreatable disease for the rest of his life. What comes through in his letters, however, is a simple gratitude for the restorative qualities of country air when he returns to Coupvray for visits, and an occasional sadness that might well have been triggered by his knowledge that his life would not be a long one.

Although we know him for inventing the foundation of literacy for the blind throughout the world, Louis Braille made other significant contributions. Among them was the first means by which blind people could communicate easily in writing to those with sight. Mellor writes:

"Until the appearance of a practical typewriter in 1867, the raphigraphe was the most user-friendly piece of equipment available to blind people who wanted to write to those who could see. It is a largely forgotten product of Braille's genius. Ironically it was a young blind man who first invented a means of representing visual information by means of dots in a matrix. Louis Braille used only one hundred dots at most but employed the same principle as do modern electronic devices--television screens, computer displays, digital cameras, cell phones--though they use millions of dots, or pixels."

With regard to studying "who we are," Mellor provides a fascinating cast of other characters whose names deserve to become familiar ones on our tongues. Valentin Haüy, of course, the founder of the school and humanitarian who wanted to educate blind children, train blind people for some means of employment, and put an end to relegating all blind people to poverty and begging. Better still, we read of other blind people--people before Louis Braille--who were high achievers and revered for their contributions. (Do the names Nicholas Saunderson or Maria Theresia von Paradis mean anything to you? If not, you'll enjoy making their acquaintance in this book.)

National Braille Press is not usually in the business of producing print books. In this instance, however, the book as been published in hardcover print, hardcover Braille (called the library or school edition), and softcover Braille. Because much of the book's appeal is, in fact, the reproduction of handwritten letters, engravings, lithographs, photographs, and other artifacts of a visual nature, professional describers were hired to write detailed descriptions of every visual image in the book. The Braille copy is four volumes. Close to half of each of those volumes, however, is devoted to a section of endnotes and another of the detailed figure descriptions. While I would rather have these descriptions than not, they did grow a bit too detailed at times, and the flipping back and forth of pages--from text to descriptions and back again--became tedious. About halfway through the book I admittedly skipped over references to descriptions, opting later to zip through them quickly as a group.

As I read of blind people begging and in poverty, of little blind children astonishing sighted audiences with their brightness and newfound literacy, of this remarkable genius himself relentlessly perfecting his code that is the foundation of everything I do, I am struck with wonder, gratitude, and something else. We need to know this man, memorize his story, have his name on our tongues, and bring his name and our literacy into the foreground of mainstream recognition. Michael Mellor has written a good book about a great man--and because that man is Louis Braille, we should be putting copies into the hands of every blind and sighted person we know. We should spread his story because we know who we are.