The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges lost his vision—what he called his “reader's and writer's sight”—around the same time that he became the director of the National Library of Argentina. This put him in charge of nearly a million books, he observed, at the very moment he could no longer read them. Borges, who went blind after a long decline in vision when he was fifty-five, never learned braille. Instead, like Milton, he memorized long passages of literature (his own, and those of the writers he loved), and had companions who read to him and to whom he dictated his writing. Much of this work—he published nearly forty books after he went blind—was done by his elderly mother, Leonor, with whom he lived until her death at ninety-nine, and who had done the same work for Borges's father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, a writer who also went blind in middle age. (Borges's blindness was hereditary, and his father and grandmother “both died blind,” Borges said—”blind, laughing, and brave, as I also hope to die.”) Borges kept his job as director of the National Library, and he became a professor of English at the University of Buenos Aires. But literature had become, for him, entirely oral. Borges decided to use the occasion of his blindness to learn a new language, and his description of the pleasure of learning Old English reminds me of my first forays into learning to read tactilely: What always happens, when one studies a language, happened. Each one of the words stood out as though it had been carved, as though it were a talisman. For that reason poems in a foreign language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply of the strangeness of them. In the newness of Old English, Borges found an almost tactile relief in the unfamiliar words, as though they were “carved,” like the raised print in those first books for the blind printed in Paris nearly two […]
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