Future Reflections  Summer 2006

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Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius

by C. Michael Mellor
A review by Paula Kimbrough

Editor’s Note:
Paula Kimbrough is the former Publications Editor at Enabling Technologies, a manufacturer of Braille embossers. She began researching Louis Braille’s life in 1998 for an article, How Braille Began, for the company Web site, which also appeared in the July, 2005, issue of the Braille Monitor.

Paula KimbroughHow’s this for a great story? A blind teenager from a farm village family, away at school, devises a code that revolutionizes communication for other blind people. The school is harsh, its location toxic, and its leaders often self-absorbed. Only other students and an occasional administrator even comprehend the magnitude of what the boy has done. The boy grows up to become a teacher at the school himself, but the conditions there destroy his health, killing him in his early forties. The code the boy invented nonetheless spreads around the world. Nearly 200 years later, the boy’s name is a household word.

The boy, of course, was Louis Braille. His tragic but triumphant life has proven irresistible to authors of children’s books for generations. Adult biographies of Louis Braille, however, can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. Now National Braille Press has published a new biography, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, by C. Michael Mellor. This beautiful book, aimed at adult readers, covers what has long been known about Braille’s life but adds previously unpublished letters written by Braille himself, as well as art and photographs on nearly every page (fully described in the Braille edition).

At last, Louis Braille’s world comes to life with a richness that is entirely new. The book opens with Braille’s death from tuberculosis in the new building of the school for the blind in Paris, the institution where he spent most of his life. Braille had prepared meticulously for his own death, arranging his affairs to remember friends, family, and servants. This scene (which is historically well documented) shows why Braille as a subject is so challenging; the man seems almost too good to be true.

With this book, Mellor is determined to bring Louis Braille back to life as a full human being, and he succeeds. Readers see the farm village, Coupvray, where Braille was born and where his father operated a harness shop. The shop in the family home (today a museum) is the place where three-year-old Louis accidentally blinded himself while exploring his father’s sharp tools. Louis’s parents, Simon-René and Monique, were literate and industrious people, but in addition to their son’s accident, they were oppressed by local outbreaks of war, famine, and disease. They also had no special expertise to qualify them to be the parents of the most famous blind child in history.

Braille’s life shows how well, and in how many ways, his parents rose to the challenge.

Mellor realistically evokes not only every brave and difficult decision they had to make about their son’s future, but the loving environment of the family home. Braille’s warm family life instilled early what modern people would call tremendous self-esteem, and it served him well the rest of his life.

The book takes readers to the school for the blind where Braille became a student at the age of ten. Mellor does not spare modern readers the grim details of the real lives of blind people in the early 19th century. Life for students at the school might seem almost too bleak to be credible, except that every other option for blind people (usually some form of begging in the streets) was so much worse.
At school, Braille developed his considerable academic and musical gifts. Like the other students, he also spent a large part of every fifteen-hour day in workshop tasks intended both to help the school’s finances and to teach the students various manual trades. When Braille was twelve, an Army captain visited to show the faculty and students a dot code he had invented to write military messages at night. At first, Braille and his friends had fun playing with the code, but Braille alone steadily persisted for three years in simplifying and improving it. By the time he finished the basics of his system, he was sixteen and had devised a simple method using a six-dot cell to write and read words and some musical notation.

Braille’s new code was an immediate hit with the other students but would encounter indifference or opposition from sighted authorities for many years. Several once-prominent worthies in the blindness field would be horrified if they knew that they are only remembered today because they entirely missed the significance of Braille. Common objections were, and still sometimes are, that Braille’s reading and writing tools made blind people “too different from sighted people” or, even more strangely, “too independent.”

Yet Braille’s other projects show that blind people were not only trying to read and write for themselves but were also trying incessantly to communicate with sighted people. Both Braille and his schoolmates spent long portions of the year at the school in Paris, so letters back and forth from home were their primary source of news and comfort. Of course, the students could usually neither write nor read these letters for themselves. Braille and some mechanically inclined blind colleagues devised a machine called a raphigraphe that created visually legible print letter shapes from massed embossed dots specifically to help blind people write to sighted people. Photographs of Braille’s own letters, written in his own carefully memorized longhand characters, in raphigraphic dot letters, or through hired scribes, serve as examples.

The content of Braille’s letters, both to his family and to colleagues, gets closer to Louis Braille as a human being than any biography has ever done, revealing him to be funny, modest, and kind. Braille deeply loved his home village and extended family, which continued to restore his spirits, if not his failing health, during long summer visits. Readers meet a man thrilled with a nephew’s wedding, worried over grape harvests, and paying close attention to his students’ grades and career prospects. Touchingly, he also seems to have had a bit of a crush on his former school director’s sister.

While Braille disliked self-promotion (a former schoolmate said Braille’s “eccentricity was not to appear eccentric”), his letters show him to be quite astute about career and business matters. Although Braille was dying of tuberculosis for the last twenty years of his life, he always held at least one outside post as a church organist in addition to his teaching job. He also constantly maneuvered to obtain similar spots for colleagues and students from the school.

Braille may not have been the saint portrayed in children’s literature, but he was authentically a good man and, indeed, a genius. At a distance of nearly two centuries, modern readers can hardly help being moved by knowing what Braille cannot--that he really will improve the world for millions of people. Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius does a wonderful job of showing readers exactly what it cost him. Parents of blind children (especially those who may have been warned by “experts” against making their children “too independent”) cannot afford to miss it.

Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by C. Michael Mellor is published by National Braille Press in several editions:
Print $35.00 (plus $5.00 shipping and handling on domestic orders)
Braille (or PortaBook) $25.00 (no charge for Free Matter shipping)
Library/School Edition (Hardcover Braille): $50

Order direct from National Braille Press via the Internet at http://www.braille.com or by contacting NBP at 88 St. Stephen Street, Boston, MA 02115 Phone: (617) 266-6160; Toll-free: (888) 965-8965; Fax: (617) 437-0456, or through http://www.amazon.com (print only).

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