Thirty-five years ago, as a result of my neglect of diabetes, I developed retinopathy. This is a condition that can cause blindness. I was lucky; the argon laser had recently become available in Australia and skilful use of it saved my sight. As one doctor said, ‘You came very close to the tin cup and the white cane.’
Since that time my vision, though severely impaired, has been functional. Until recently I was able to read a newspaper without glasses. Recent examination shows that the scar tissue left by the laser has thickened and seriously reduced my vision. My ophthalmologist tells me it might get a little worse but won’t completely blind me.
As of now, I struggle to read a newspaper with glasses – sometimes resorting to a magnifying glass – and I have difficulty with conventional books, finding the print too small and too faint. Under these circumstances, the e-reader has been a boon.
As I wrote in an earlier column, being able to increase the font size allowed me to read comfortably. Over recent months I’ve experienced a number of great books read or re-read on the Kindle; for example, Cormac McCarthy’s scarifying Blood Meridian, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, and Thomas Dormandy’s Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream which I recently reviewed for the NRB.
But, although the e-books are cheaper than the printed version, sometimes by as much as two-thirds, I can’t keep shelling out because I read constantly and I can’t afford it. Also, unlike books from a library or bookshop, you can’t browse. The result has been that I’ve bought some quite expensive duds. The worst was John Irving’s In One Person, which I found artificial, contrived and slightly distasteful. If I’d been able to browse a few pages I wouldn’t have bought it*. It’s easy to skip with an e-reader, but skipping goes against the grain with me.
The answer is big print. Fortunately, my local library, the Newtown branch of the Sydney library service, has large-print books in a separate section. (Not all libraries do this.) The collection only amounts to one bay of shelves, but it’s divided into fiction and non-fiction. And the lighting in the area is good.
Typically, the big-print books have the blurb on the back cover. It’s a great luxury after squinting at what for me are tiny fonts and light print, to be able to read this and a few pages to check whether the book measures up to the blurb. I’m confident that I can find things to read at the Newtown branch for a while and then move on to more extensive collection at the Customs House branch.
This is not to say that I won’t download more e-books. The impatience factor will work in their favour and I won’t be able to wait for such things as Mantel’s next book or C J Samson’s next offering in his Shardlake series, which paints Thomas Cromwell in very different light, to appear in big print. Those bloody Tudors – why is it that we can’t get enough of them?
*I could have sampled the book in a bookshop which is something I have done on occasion but I always feel guilty about it. It feels a bit like shoplifting. I chose the Irving novel on the basis of a laudatory review with which, after reading the book, I completely disagreed.