Once she started going blind, Julia Sayles had a tough time remembering which books she had read. When every day you see the book you’re reading — on the table, in your bag, on your nightstand — the title on the spine has a tendency to sear itself into your brain.
Not necessarily so when a book to you is the sound of a narrator’s voice. Still, even though her eyes are failing, Julia — a retired federal lawyer — reads as much as she can. And on the second Thursday of every month, she goes to her book club at the District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. It’s a book club for the blind and visually impaired.
They did not like “Your Inner Fish,” a science-heavy book about human evolution.
“It was like sitting through hours of a physiological lecture,” Mary Breen says.
The book that elicited the most discussion was John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker.” They also liked George Pelecanos, the local mystery writer who’s so good at conjuring D.C. neighborhoods.
“I thought I was going to be in that man’s book,” says George A. Caldwell, a retired lawyer. “He was getting close.”
When it comes to picking books for the club, the library has to make sure that they’re available in the National Library Service’s talking book format: USB cartridges that pop into special players. It’s all arranged through the library’s adaptive services division, which serves disabled and housebound readers.
The adaptive services division also records books for patrons who can’t find them elsewhere. That’s how George, who lives at Leisure World in Silver Spring, was able to get “The Guide to Getting It On,” a 928-page sex encyclopedia. A volunteer entered a soundproof booth at the library and recorded it.
Did you read the whole thing, George?
“I read it in its entirety,” George says, with the slightest trace of a smile on his face.
“People with disabilities have the same broad interests as anyone else,” says Venetia V. Demson, chief of the library’s adaptive services division.
“Remember when the boys in the Braille book club wanted books about anatomy?” says Serena McGuire, a sighted library employee who moderates the discussions. The boys wanted to get their hands on one of the tactile anatomy books on the market.
In addition to its collection of Braille and talking books, Venetia’s division teaches people to use voice-activated software. It offers accessibility classes. It has an American Sign Language story hour for kids. Deaf and hearing-impaired people can use video phones. Venetia is planning programs for autistic patrons. “Our goal is promoting independence,” she says.
Last month, Venetia was honored with an I Love My Librarian Award, sponsored by the Carnegie Corp., the American Library Association and the New York Times. She went to New York for the awards dinner and her $5,000 prize.
Venetia’s originally from Pelham, N.Y. At Pelham Memorial High, she vowed to read every novel in the school library, starting with the authors whose last names began with A.
Did she finish? “I remember reading ‘Arundel’ by Kenneth Roberts,” she says, “so I know I got to R.”
Her first career was in international cargo shipping (she once helped a guy ship a Russian tank to Milwaukee), before she went back to school and got her library degree.
Books, Venetia says, “can keep the world open when it’s visually closing down. That journey of the mind is maybe the only journey you can take if you have multiple disabilities.”
With books, the blind person sees, the deaf person hears, the housebound person visits Baker Street, matching Holmes and Watson stride for stride.