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There Plant Eyes

A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness

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From Homer to Helen Keller, from Dune to Stevie Wonder, from the invention of braille to the science of echolocation, M. Leona Godin explores the fascinating history of blindness, interweaving it with her own story of gradually losing her sight.

There Plant Eyes probes the ways in which blindness has shaped our ocularcentric culture, challenging deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be “blind.” For millennia, blindness has been used to signify such things as thoughtlessness (“blind faith”), irrationality (“blind rage”), and unconsciousness (“blind evolution”). But at the same time, blind people have been othered as the recipients of special powers as compensation for lost sight (from the poetic gifts of John Milton to the heightened senses of the comic book hero Daredevil).

Godin—who began losing her vision at age ten—illuminates the often-surprising history of both the condition of blindness and the myths and ideas that have grown up around it over the course of generations. She combines an analysis of blindness in art and culture (from King Lear to Star Wars) with a study of the science of blindness and key developments in accessibility (the white cane, embossed printing, digital technology) to paint a vivid personal and cultural history.

A genre-defying work, There Plant Eyes reveals just how essential blindness and vision are to humanity’s understanding of itself and the world.

“This sighted disabled person learned so much from There Plant Eyes! The book took me on a cultural journey that showed how blindness isbeautiful, complex, and brilliant.” —Alice Wong, editor of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century

“Godin guides readers through the surprising twists and turns in Western blind history, from ancient seers to contemporary scientists. The lively writing style and memorable personal anecdotes are delightful. This book is a gift to both blind and sighted readers.” —Haben Girma, human rights lawyer and author of the best-selling Haben: The Deaf blind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

“Godin moves effortlessly from erudite explorations of the construction of ‘blindness’ to incisive and often funny examinations of technology that helps—or does not help—the blind individual to personal stories of her own life. I was only a few pages in before I realized that what I thought about being blind was either wrong or woefully insufficient. The reader will be lost in admiration for Godin’s gifts as a writer and cultural critic.” —Riva Lehrer, author of Golem Girl: A Memoir

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for a book like There Plant Eyes to demystify what it means and doesn’t mean to be blind. With eloquence and wit, M. Leona Godin articulates what our culture has gotten wrong for centuries. Blindness, she makes clear, is a feature, not merely a difference. I’ll be recommending this book every chance I get.” —James Tate Hill, author of Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir

“We are inevitably blind to realities outside our own experience, and it takes a sensitive writer like Godin—with her poet's ear—to give insight into sightlessness.” —David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Stanford, author of Livewired

There Plant Eyes is so graceful, so wise, so effortlessly erudite, I learned something new and took pleasure in every page. All hail its originality, its humanity, and its ‘philosophical obsession with diversity in all its complicated and messy glory.’” —Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

“[A] thought-provoking mixture of criticism, memoir, and advocacy. Drawing on works including the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Paradise Lost, [Godin] traces two ideas: that being unable to see brings deep insight and that the blind can show how little the sighted truly see. Godin counters these stereotypes with her own experiences and with surprising details from the lives of blind activists such as Helen Keller, to argue that ‘there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted.’” —The New Yorker

“Elegant, fiercely argued. . . . Godin enlarges our understanding of the blind and sight impaired, and There Plant Eyes proves a landmark contribution to the literature of disability, comparable to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—which is to say the literature of the human itself.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A revealing and humorous account of how blindness has been misunderstood by the sighted. . . . By turns heartfelt and thought-provoking, this is a striking achievement.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A passionate argument for placing blind people at the center of their own stories. . . . An insightful and wide-ranging book that asks sighted readers to examine the myriad ways in which our culture uses concepts of blindness as metaphor or morality tale while simultaneously ignoring the existence, insights, and experiences of blind people. . . . There Plant Eyes speaks eloquently and urgently to the necessity of making space for blind thinkers within our ocular-centric world.” —Booklist

“[An] erudite, capacious book. . . . Playwright and columnist Godin approaches her subject from a unique perspective. Now blind, she gradually lost her sight from retinal dystrophy, a frightening process she poignantly recounts throughout the book. . . . As Godin wonderfully shows, we’ve come a long way in our quest to understand what blindness means.” —Kirkus Reviews
© “Leona Godin Faces Her Portrait” © 2020, photograph by Alabaster Rhumb, painting by Roy Nachum
M. Leona Godin (pronounced like French sculptor Rodin) is a writer, performer, educator, and the author of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural history of Blindness (Pantheon, 2021). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, O Magazine, Electric Literature, Catapult, and other print and online publications. She produced two plays: “The Star of Happiness” about Helen Keller’s time performing in vaudeville, and “The Spectator and the Blind Man,” about the invention of braille. Godin holds a PhD in English, and besides her many years teaching literature and humanities courses at NYU, she has lectured on art, accessibility, technology, and disability at such places as Tandon School of Engineering, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, and the American Printing House for the Blind. Her online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste, Aromatica Poetica, publishes writing and art from around the world. View titles by M. Leona Godin
1. Homer’s Blind Bard


Homer, the author generally credited with the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey—two of the oldest works of West­ern literatureis in large part responsible for the tradition of the blind bard, and yet so little is known about him and his life that most scholars believe him (and his blindness) to be legend­ary. Most accounts of Homer come to us from centuries after he purportedly lived, and even in the ancient world there existed skepticism regarding his blindness, as succinctly represented by Proclus (a philosopher of late antiquity), who in his Life of Homer turned the doubt into a kind of aphorism: “Those who have stated that he was blind seem to me to be mentally blind themselves, for he saw more clearly than any man ever.”1
 
Although this kind of ocularcentrism (how can a blind per­son speak clearly about the visible world?) will be echoed about other blind writers from John Milton to Helen Keller, the idea that Homer was blind has endured.
 
The two great epic poems associated with the name Homer were probably composed in the eighth or seventh century BCE, about events during (The Iliad) and after (The Odyssey) the Trojan War, which itself, if historic, took place a few hundred years earlier in a distant heroic age. These epics as they’ve come down to us should be understood as a kind of tapestry of older legends and stories sung by many bards in many different versions, some of which were codified under the authorial name Homer.
 
The tradition of the blind bard in Western literature origi­nates not in histories or biographies of Homer, but in The Odyssey itself. When Odysseus meets the blind bard Demodocus in the court of King Alcinous (leader of the Phaeacians) the moment feels rather meta: the fictional blind bard of the Odyssey as stand-in for the legendary blind author Homer: “The house boy brought the poet, whom the Muse / adored. She gave him two gifts, good and bad: / she took his sight away, but gave sweet song.”2
 
This is from Emily Wilson’s 2018 translation of The Odyssey. The famous passage sets forth the concept reiterated in West­ern culture again and again: the poetic gift is compensation for the physical lack of sight. Both the lack of sight and the gift of poetry come from the gods. The invocation of the Muse at the start of all great epics announces the poet’s receptivity, and that receptivity is a matter of ears, not eyes. The poet demands not that the Muse show but tell: “Sing to me, O Muse!”
 
I first remember reading, or rather attempting to read, The Odyssey in the tenth grade, but by then my eyesight had dete­riorated to such an extent that I did not make it very far. I con­fronted endless blocks of text (so perhaps it was a prose version created for high school readers) and, after just a few pages took me hours—the words breaking apart before my eyes, making comprehension nearly impossible—I attempted to write an essay about the book without having come anywhere near finishing it. I received a D for the paper, my first, and it was terrible. As an English honors student and a once-avid reader, I blamed and hated the teacher for my failure. I would not finish The Odyssey for several years—not until I found myself studying Greek and Latin at UC Santa Cruz (Go, Slugs!). Only then, as this anoma­lous creature—a classics major at a school best known for redwood groves and marijuana—did I first begin to identify with blindness in all its complexities and contradictions.
 
In fact, it was my Greek and Latin tutor (paid by Disabled Students Services to give me extra help outside of class) who first made me realize that blindness was not just my future calamity, but also a cultural phenomenon. “Did you know,” he said, “that the ancients revered the blind as poets and prophets?”
 
By then I knew about Homer, of course, but I hadn’t really thought about what the blind bard might have to do with me. With my CCTV—a cumbersome magnification system involv­ing a seventeen-inch monitor that blew my Greek and Latin texts up into inch-high characters—at home, and the bulky packets of passages printed in forty-point type—which were still hard for me to read, but helped me to follow along in class—I did not feel very much like a poet or a prophet. I surely did not feel the compensatory powers set forth in The Odyssey and reiterated again and again in Western literature. I did not know then that my tutor’s words would set me on my path to read metaphorical blindness against its realities. I did, however, have an inkling that this other blindness—the metaphorical kind—might pro­vide some compensation after all. That I might do well to iden­tify with metaphorical blindness in order to mitigate the intense shame I’d felt throughout my teens.
 
For it was shame that was—from about the age of twelve—my dominant feeling with regard to my visual impairment. Shame for the things I could not do. Shame at not being able to recognize faces, shame at not being able to see street signs, and above all, shame at not being able to read. If I had been a different kind of kid with different kinds of friends, I might have been bummed not to be able to catch a ball—and to be sure, there have been times in my life when play eluded me because of my poor sight. Mostly, however, my friends were the type of people who smoked, drank, made art, read, and fre­quented used record and book shops. So much of my time was spent trailing them around Green Apple, a used-book shop on Clement Street in San Francisco, inhaling that familiar scent of old paper everywhere, scrutinizing the covers in hopes of being able to find some words—a title or an author’s name—large enough to recognize and perhaps purchase, maybe even show it off.
 
For some years to come, I would still be able to read (very) large print, and I could recognize my books by their covers, but by eleventh grade, most printed pages held only decorative lines of black ink for me. I could see the shapes of words dancing along, but without extreme magnification, no matter how much I squinted or maneuvered the page I could not read a single word.
 
My inability to read The Odyssey when I was in high school—before I was introduced to all the technology (the CCTV, the computer with speech output, later my braille dis­play) that makes digital books accessible today, and even before I was introduced to recorded books when I was eighteen—echoes an irony at the heart of the blind Homer tradition. The books that have come to us as The Iliad and The Odyssey are written documents derived from a much older oral tradition. The domi­nance of the written word over that oral tradition made the real­ity of a blind reader, let alone a blind writer, a near impossibility, at least until the invention of first raised type and, later, braille in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even then, accessing the tools of the trade—the work of other writers, the means of writing—has hardly been easy for the blind writer.
 
“Believe me,” Jorge Luis Borges said in an interview a year before his death, “the benefits of blindness have been greatly exaggerated. If I could see, I would never leave the house, I’d stay indoors reading the many books that surround me. Now they’re as far away from me as Iceland, although I’ve been to Iceland twice and I will never reach my books.”3
 
This quote is heartbreaking, coming from a man who headed up the Argentinian National Library and wrote such intricately wrought, book-oriented stories as “The Library of Babel.” The quote is also, however, surprising and a bit odd, coming as it does from someone who continued to have a won­derful career long after losing his ability to read. If reports of the benefits of blindness have indeed been exaggerated, Borges himself is not innocent: “Blindness has not been for me a total misfortune,” he explains in “Blindness.” “It should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living.”4 This reminds me of the rallying cry of the actor and playwright Neil Marcus, who has helped to reify disability culture: “Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art.”
 
Borges continues this train of thought by affirming that “being blind has its advantages,” and credits it with many gifts, including another book “entitled, with a certain falsehood, with a certain arrogance, In Praise of Darkness.” Then he moves on to “speak now of other cases, of illustrious cases.” Beginning with the “obvious example of the friendship of poetry and blindness, with the one who has been called the greatest of poets: Homer,” he goes on to mention others that we will encounter in this book: John Milton, whose “blindness was voluntary,” and James Joyce, who “brought a new music to English.”5

Discussion Guide for There Plant Eyes

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

“[A] thought-provoking mixture of criticism, memoir, and advocacy. Drawing on works including the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Paradise Lost, [Godin] traces two ideas: that being unable to see brings deep insight and that the blind can show how little the sighted truly see. Godin counters these stereotypes with her own experiences and with surprising details from the lives of blind activists such as Helen Keller, to argue that 'there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted.’”
The New Yorker

“Elegant, fiercely argued . . . Godin enlarges our understanding of the blind and sight impaired, and There Plant Eyes proves a landmark contribution to the literature of disability, comparable to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—which is to say the literature of the human itself.”
The Wall Street Journal

There Plant Eyes is so graceful, so wise, so effortlessly erudite, I learned something new and took pleasure in every page. All hail its originality, its humanity, and its ‘philosophical obsession with diversity in all its complicated and messy glory.’”
—Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

“A revealing and humorous account of how blindness has been misunderstood by the sighted . . . By turns heartfelt and thought-provoking, this is a striking achievement.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Godin guides readers through the surprising twists and turns in Western blind history, from ancient seers to contemporary scientists. The lively writing style and memorable personal anecdotes are delightful. This book is a gift to both blind and sighted readers.”
—Haben Girma, human rights lawyer and author of the best-selling Haben: The Deaf blind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

“This sighted disabled person learned so much from There Plant Eyes! The book took me on a cultural journey that showed how blindness isbeautiful, complex, and brilliant.”
—Alice Wong, editor of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century

“Godin moves effortlessly from erudite explorations of the construction of ‘blindness’ to incisive and often funny examinations of technology that helps—or does not help—the blind individual to personal stories of her own life. I was only a few pages in before I realized that what I thought about being blind was either wrong or woefully insufficient. The reader will be lost in admiration for Godin's gifts as a writer and cultural critic.”
—Riva Lehrer, author of Golem Girl: A Memoir

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for a book like There Plant Eyes to demystify what it means and doesn’t mean to be blind. With eloquence and wit, M. Leona Godin articulates what our culture has gotten wrong for centuries. Blindness, she makes clear, is a feature, not merely a difference. I’ll be recommending this book every chance I get.”
—James Tate Hill, author of Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir

“We are inevitably blind to realities outside our own experience, and it takes a sensitive writer like Godin—with her poet's ear—to give insight into sightlessness.”
—David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Stanford, author of Livewired

“A passionate argument for placing blind people at the center of their own stories . . . An insightful and wide-ranging book that asks sighted readers to examine the myriad ways in which our culture uses concepts of blindness as metaphor or morality tale while simultaneously ignoring the existence, insights, and experiences of blind people . . . There Plant Eyes speaks eloquently and urgently to the necessity of making space for blind thinkers within our ocular-centric world.”
Booklist

“[An] erudite, capacious book . . . Playwright and columnist Godin approaches her subject from a unique perspective. Now blind, she gradually lost her sight from retinal dystrophy, a frightening process she poignantly recounts throughout the book . . . As Godin wonderfully shows, we’ve come a long way in our quest to understand what blindness means.”
Kirkus Reviews

About

From Homer to Helen Keller, from Dune to Stevie Wonder, from the invention of braille to the science of echolocation, M. Leona Godin explores the fascinating history of blindness, interweaving it with her own story of gradually losing her sight.

There Plant Eyes probes the ways in which blindness has shaped our ocularcentric culture, challenging deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be “blind.” For millennia, blindness has been used to signify such things as thoughtlessness (“blind faith”), irrationality (“blind rage”), and unconsciousness (“blind evolution”). But at the same time, blind people have been othered as the recipients of special powers as compensation for lost sight (from the poetic gifts of John Milton to the heightened senses of the comic book hero Daredevil).

Godin—who began losing her vision at age ten—illuminates the often-surprising history of both the condition of blindness and the myths and ideas that have grown up around it over the course of generations. She combines an analysis of blindness in art and culture (from King Lear to Star Wars) with a study of the science of blindness and key developments in accessibility (the white cane, embossed printing, digital technology) to paint a vivid personal and cultural history.

A genre-defying work, There Plant Eyes reveals just how essential blindness and vision are to humanity’s understanding of itself and the world.

“This sighted disabled person learned so much from There Plant Eyes! The book took me on a cultural journey that showed how blindness isbeautiful, complex, and brilliant.” —Alice Wong, editor of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century

“Godin guides readers through the surprising twists and turns in Western blind history, from ancient seers to contemporary scientists. The lively writing style and memorable personal anecdotes are delightful. This book is a gift to both blind and sighted readers.” —Haben Girma, human rights lawyer and author of the best-selling Haben: The Deaf blind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

“Godin moves effortlessly from erudite explorations of the construction of ‘blindness’ to incisive and often funny examinations of technology that helps—or does not help—the blind individual to personal stories of her own life. I was only a few pages in before I realized that what I thought about being blind was either wrong or woefully insufficient. The reader will be lost in admiration for Godin’s gifts as a writer and cultural critic.” —Riva Lehrer, author of Golem Girl: A Memoir

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for a book like There Plant Eyes to demystify what it means and doesn’t mean to be blind. With eloquence and wit, M. Leona Godin articulates what our culture has gotten wrong for centuries. Blindness, she makes clear, is a feature, not merely a difference. I’ll be recommending this book every chance I get.” —James Tate Hill, author of Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir

“We are inevitably blind to realities outside our own experience, and it takes a sensitive writer like Godin—with her poet's ear—to give insight into sightlessness.” —David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Stanford, author of Livewired

There Plant Eyes is so graceful, so wise, so effortlessly erudite, I learned something new and took pleasure in every page. All hail its originality, its humanity, and its ‘philosophical obsession with diversity in all its complicated and messy glory.’” —Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

“[A] thought-provoking mixture of criticism, memoir, and advocacy. Drawing on works including the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Paradise Lost, [Godin] traces two ideas: that being unable to see brings deep insight and that the blind can show how little the sighted truly see. Godin counters these stereotypes with her own experiences and with surprising details from the lives of blind activists such as Helen Keller, to argue that ‘there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted.’” —The New Yorker

“Elegant, fiercely argued. . . . Godin enlarges our understanding of the blind and sight impaired, and There Plant Eyes proves a landmark contribution to the literature of disability, comparable to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—which is to say the literature of the human itself.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A revealing and humorous account of how blindness has been misunderstood by the sighted. . . . By turns heartfelt and thought-provoking, this is a striking achievement.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A passionate argument for placing blind people at the center of their own stories. . . . An insightful and wide-ranging book that asks sighted readers to examine the myriad ways in which our culture uses concepts of blindness as metaphor or morality tale while simultaneously ignoring the existence, insights, and experiences of blind people. . . . There Plant Eyes speaks eloquently and urgently to the necessity of making space for blind thinkers within our ocular-centric world.” —Booklist

“[An] erudite, capacious book. . . . Playwright and columnist Godin approaches her subject from a unique perspective. Now blind, she gradually lost her sight from retinal dystrophy, a frightening process she poignantly recounts throughout the book. . . . As Godin wonderfully shows, we’ve come a long way in our quest to understand what blindness means.” —Kirkus Reviews

Author

© “Leona Godin Faces Her Portrait” © 2020, photograph by Alabaster Rhumb, painting by Roy Nachum
M. Leona Godin (pronounced like French sculptor Rodin) is a writer, performer, educator, and the author of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural history of Blindness (Pantheon, 2021). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, O Magazine, Electric Literature, Catapult, and other print and online publications. She produced two plays: “The Star of Happiness” about Helen Keller’s time performing in vaudeville, and “The Spectator and the Blind Man,” about the invention of braille. Godin holds a PhD in English, and besides her many years teaching literature and humanities courses at NYU, she has lectured on art, accessibility, technology, and disability at such places as Tandon School of Engineering, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, and the American Printing House for the Blind. Her online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste, Aromatica Poetica, publishes writing and art from around the world. View titles by M. Leona Godin

Excerpt

1. Homer’s Blind Bard


Homer, the author generally credited with the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey—two of the oldest works of West­ern literatureis in large part responsible for the tradition of the blind bard, and yet so little is known about him and his life that most scholars believe him (and his blindness) to be legend­ary. Most accounts of Homer come to us from centuries after he purportedly lived, and even in the ancient world there existed skepticism regarding his blindness, as succinctly represented by Proclus (a philosopher of late antiquity), who in his Life of Homer turned the doubt into a kind of aphorism: “Those who have stated that he was blind seem to me to be mentally blind themselves, for he saw more clearly than any man ever.”1
 
Although this kind of ocularcentrism (how can a blind per­son speak clearly about the visible world?) will be echoed about other blind writers from John Milton to Helen Keller, the idea that Homer was blind has endured.
 
The two great epic poems associated with the name Homer were probably composed in the eighth or seventh century BCE, about events during (The Iliad) and after (The Odyssey) the Trojan War, which itself, if historic, took place a few hundred years earlier in a distant heroic age. These epics as they’ve come down to us should be understood as a kind of tapestry of older legends and stories sung by many bards in many different versions, some of which were codified under the authorial name Homer.
 
The tradition of the blind bard in Western literature origi­nates not in histories or biographies of Homer, but in The Odyssey itself. When Odysseus meets the blind bard Demodocus in the court of King Alcinous (leader of the Phaeacians) the moment feels rather meta: the fictional blind bard of the Odyssey as stand-in for the legendary blind author Homer: “The house boy brought the poet, whom the Muse / adored. She gave him two gifts, good and bad: / she took his sight away, but gave sweet song.”2
 
This is from Emily Wilson’s 2018 translation of The Odyssey. The famous passage sets forth the concept reiterated in West­ern culture again and again: the poetic gift is compensation for the physical lack of sight. Both the lack of sight and the gift of poetry come from the gods. The invocation of the Muse at the start of all great epics announces the poet’s receptivity, and that receptivity is a matter of ears, not eyes. The poet demands not that the Muse show but tell: “Sing to me, O Muse!”
 
I first remember reading, or rather attempting to read, The Odyssey in the tenth grade, but by then my eyesight had dete­riorated to such an extent that I did not make it very far. I con­fronted endless blocks of text (so perhaps it was a prose version created for high school readers) and, after just a few pages took me hours—the words breaking apart before my eyes, making comprehension nearly impossible—I attempted to write an essay about the book without having come anywhere near finishing it. I received a D for the paper, my first, and it was terrible. As an English honors student and a once-avid reader, I blamed and hated the teacher for my failure. I would not finish The Odyssey for several years—not until I found myself studying Greek and Latin at UC Santa Cruz (Go, Slugs!). Only then, as this anoma­lous creature—a classics major at a school best known for redwood groves and marijuana—did I first begin to identify with blindness in all its complexities and contradictions.
 
In fact, it was my Greek and Latin tutor (paid by Disabled Students Services to give me extra help outside of class) who first made me realize that blindness was not just my future calamity, but also a cultural phenomenon. “Did you know,” he said, “that the ancients revered the blind as poets and prophets?”
 
By then I knew about Homer, of course, but I hadn’t really thought about what the blind bard might have to do with me. With my CCTV—a cumbersome magnification system involv­ing a seventeen-inch monitor that blew my Greek and Latin texts up into inch-high characters—at home, and the bulky packets of passages printed in forty-point type—which were still hard for me to read, but helped me to follow along in class—I did not feel very much like a poet or a prophet. I surely did not feel the compensatory powers set forth in The Odyssey and reiterated again and again in Western literature. I did not know then that my tutor’s words would set me on my path to read metaphorical blindness against its realities. I did, however, have an inkling that this other blindness—the metaphorical kind—might pro­vide some compensation after all. That I might do well to iden­tify with metaphorical blindness in order to mitigate the intense shame I’d felt throughout my teens.
 
For it was shame that was—from about the age of twelve—my dominant feeling with regard to my visual impairment. Shame for the things I could not do. Shame at not being able to recognize faces, shame at not being able to see street signs, and above all, shame at not being able to read. If I had been a different kind of kid with different kinds of friends, I might have been bummed not to be able to catch a ball—and to be sure, there have been times in my life when play eluded me because of my poor sight. Mostly, however, my friends were the type of people who smoked, drank, made art, read, and fre­quented used record and book shops. So much of my time was spent trailing them around Green Apple, a used-book shop on Clement Street in San Francisco, inhaling that familiar scent of old paper everywhere, scrutinizing the covers in hopes of being able to find some words—a title or an author’s name—large enough to recognize and perhaps purchase, maybe even show it off.
 
For some years to come, I would still be able to read (very) large print, and I could recognize my books by their covers, but by eleventh grade, most printed pages held only decorative lines of black ink for me. I could see the shapes of words dancing along, but without extreme magnification, no matter how much I squinted or maneuvered the page I could not read a single word.
 
My inability to read The Odyssey when I was in high school—before I was introduced to all the technology (the CCTV, the computer with speech output, later my braille dis­play) that makes digital books accessible today, and even before I was introduced to recorded books when I was eighteen—echoes an irony at the heart of the blind Homer tradition. The books that have come to us as The Iliad and The Odyssey are written documents derived from a much older oral tradition. The domi­nance of the written word over that oral tradition made the real­ity of a blind reader, let alone a blind writer, a near impossibility, at least until the invention of first raised type and, later, braille in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even then, accessing the tools of the trade—the work of other writers, the means of writing—has hardly been easy for the blind writer.
 
“Believe me,” Jorge Luis Borges said in an interview a year before his death, “the benefits of blindness have been greatly exaggerated. If I could see, I would never leave the house, I’d stay indoors reading the many books that surround me. Now they’re as far away from me as Iceland, although I’ve been to Iceland twice and I will never reach my books.”3
 
This quote is heartbreaking, coming from a man who headed up the Argentinian National Library and wrote such intricately wrought, book-oriented stories as “The Library of Babel.” The quote is also, however, surprising and a bit odd, coming as it does from someone who continued to have a won­derful career long after losing his ability to read. If reports of the benefits of blindness have indeed been exaggerated, Borges himself is not innocent: “Blindness has not been for me a total misfortune,” he explains in “Blindness.” “It should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living.”4 This reminds me of the rallying cry of the actor and playwright Neil Marcus, who has helped to reify disability culture: “Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art.”
 
Borges continues this train of thought by affirming that “being blind has its advantages,” and credits it with many gifts, including another book “entitled, with a certain falsehood, with a certain arrogance, In Praise of Darkness.” Then he moves on to “speak now of other cases, of illustrious cases.” Beginning with the “obvious example of the friendship of poetry and blindness, with the one who has been called the greatest of poets: Homer,” he goes on to mention others that we will encounter in this book: John Milton, whose “blindness was voluntary,” and James Joyce, who “brought a new music to English.”5

Guides

Discussion Guide for There Plant Eyes

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Praise

“[A] thought-provoking mixture of criticism, memoir, and advocacy. Drawing on works including the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Paradise Lost, [Godin] traces two ideas: that being unable to see brings deep insight and that the blind can show how little the sighted truly see. Godin counters these stereotypes with her own experiences and with surprising details from the lives of blind activists such as Helen Keller, to argue that 'there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted.’”
The New Yorker

“Elegant, fiercely argued . . . Godin enlarges our understanding of the blind and sight impaired, and There Plant Eyes proves a landmark contribution to the literature of disability, comparable to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—which is to say the literature of the human itself.”
The Wall Street Journal

There Plant Eyes is so graceful, so wise, so effortlessly erudite, I learned something new and took pleasure in every page. All hail its originality, its humanity, and its ‘philosophical obsession with diversity in all its complicated and messy glory.’”
—Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

“A revealing and humorous account of how blindness has been misunderstood by the sighted . . . By turns heartfelt and thought-provoking, this is a striking achievement.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Godin guides readers through the surprising twists and turns in Western blind history, from ancient seers to contemporary scientists. The lively writing style and memorable personal anecdotes are delightful. This book is a gift to both blind and sighted readers.”
—Haben Girma, human rights lawyer and author of the best-selling Haben: The Deaf blind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

“This sighted disabled person learned so much from There Plant Eyes! The book took me on a cultural journey that showed how blindness isbeautiful, complex, and brilliant.”
—Alice Wong, editor of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century

“Godin moves effortlessly from erudite explorations of the construction of ‘blindness’ to incisive and often funny examinations of technology that helps—or does not help—the blind individual to personal stories of her own life. I was only a few pages in before I realized that what I thought about being blind was either wrong or woefully insufficient. The reader will be lost in admiration for Godin's gifts as a writer and cultural critic.”
—Riva Lehrer, author of Golem Girl: A Memoir

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for a book like There Plant Eyes to demystify what it means and doesn’t mean to be blind. With eloquence and wit, M. Leona Godin articulates what our culture has gotten wrong for centuries. Blindness, she makes clear, is a feature, not merely a difference. I’ll be recommending this book every chance I get.”
—James Tate Hill, author of Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir

“We are inevitably blind to realities outside our own experience, and it takes a sensitive writer like Godin—with her poet's ear—to give insight into sightlessness.”
—David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Stanford, author of Livewired

“A passionate argument for placing blind people at the center of their own stories . . . An insightful and wide-ranging book that asks sighted readers to examine the myriad ways in which our culture uses concepts of blindness as metaphor or morality tale while simultaneously ignoring the existence, insights, and experiences of blind people . . . There Plant Eyes speaks eloquently and urgently to the necessity of making space for blind thinkers within our ocular-centric world.”
Booklist

“[An] erudite, capacious book . . . Playwright and columnist Godin approaches her subject from a unique perspective. Now blind, she gradually lost her sight from retinal dystrophy, a frightening process she poignantly recounts throughout the book . . . As Godin wonderfully shows, we’ve come a long way in our quest to understand what blindness means.”
Kirkus Reviews

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