Getting Back to Judging Books by Their Covers

I often find myself thinking about how things used to be. How they used to be before the advent of the Internet, social networks, and instant access to just about anything. This way of thinking lies behind the existence of this blog and many of the things that interest me. And one thought that I have been pondering recently is the idea of book discovery and how it has changed since my early years of loving books.

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Thinking back to those “olden days” of my tweens and early teen years, I have so many fond memories of time spent looking at books. Whether I was at one of the local libraries or more often, at one of our mall bookstores, I loved to look at the books. I would pull them from the shelves and admire the covers and anxiously read the blurbs and descriptions on the back or inside the flap on the hardcovers. I was always on the hunt for my next read, for that next great fantasy or science fiction story that would sweep me away.

During this time, the mid-1980s, there was no Internet, there was no Goodreads or Reddit. Pretty much all I had to go on to choose my next story were the books themselves. Occasionally a friend might recommend something but that was rare, as I was a bit of a loner in my love of books. I distinctly remember discovering the Xanth series by Piers Anthony in a library, because they sounded so whimsical and fun. I discovered the sword and sorcery of David Eddings’ Belgariad on those same shelves. Perhaps my favorite series of all time, the Dragonlance Chronicles, was first stumbled upon at a Waldenbooks in the Gainesville, FL mall because they had beautifully illustrated dragons on the covers. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. The list goes on and on.

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Flash forward thirty years and the way I discover new books has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily for the better. Now I have access to more book recommendation engines than I know what to do with. Amazon and Goodreads use complex algorithms to suggest books based on my history. Reddit has some fantastic book subreddits like the r/fantasy, where kind people will suggest what might be your next great read. But what I have noticed is that these things are making the process less enjoyable somehow, less serendipitous. I have become so consumed with “Will I love this?” rather than just taking a chance and giving it a go based on the fantastic cover or a well-written blurb. The fact is, my success rate with enjoying books has actually gotten worse while utilizing all these seemingly great resources. I have abandoned more “recommended” books in the last ten years because I just didn’t like them than I have in my entire life up to that point. I wonder why that is?

I want to take more chances. I want to teach my kids to do the same as they read and hopefully fall in love with reading. Just wander around, pull them off the shelf, look for a cover that triggers something and maybe, take a chance.

Me vs. The Restaurant

Eating out is almost always a great time… unless you are blind like me. Okay, so that might have been a bit of a “shock” opening line but, unfortunately, it is true for me. Like most people, I love eating good food with family and friends. I especially love it if I don’t have to help clean up the dishes afterward. This is where the restaurant comes in, those nearly ubiquitous dining establishments that can be spotted on just about any street corner in our town. However, I have begun to notice that I don’t enjoy eating out as often as I used to as my sight deteriorates. There are a number of reasons why and none of them have anything to do with the quality of the buffalo wings.

The first thing is the seating, especially when we are talking about a non-fast food, sit down and order joint. Navigating the maze of tables and chairs, that to me seem like they are scattered haphazardly, is nearly impossible without help from my wife and kids. I get it. These places need to maximize their seating to get in as many customers as possible to maximize food sales and I don’t begrudge them that. But, you combine the table and chair arrangement with the dim, mood lighting that most places seem to love and I’m definitely running into a chair or three.

Secondly, is the process of selecting and ordering food. In a fast-food spot, reading the menu boards hanging behind the counter is nearly always a no go for me. The font is entirely too small and I often wonder why considering how much white space I can clearly see. Isn’t the point of these things is to help you choose what to eat? Then I have to either rely on my memory of what I enjoyed the last time we came here or I have to lean over to my lady and ask for help. Not ideal and it definitely does not inspire a feeling of independence. There have been a few places that have self-ordering kiosks, that I’ve been able to use for checking out what they offer, and that has been nice and somewhat liberating. More of those types of screens please, where I can actually walk right up to them and see what’s what.

In a sit-down restaurant, ordering from a laminated menu offers its own challenges. As mentioned earlier, the lighting is usually dim which by its very nature, makes reading difficult. And similar to the menu boards, the fonts are usually small and there is clearly a real emphasis on making it look cool rather than making it easy to read. In these cases, I can pull out my pocket magnifier, if the lighting is decent, and make my selections. But in poor light, I once again have to ask for help. (Are you picking up on a pattern here?)

My final reason for falling out of love with eating out so often has been touched on already. It is that I simply don’t feel like I could eat out on my own, independently, without assistance, and that is not great. I don’t feel safe navigating the dining areas and often even need help to find the restrooms unless I have been there a few times. Certainly not the most dignified thing for a man in his mid-forties.

So, I add all those reasons together and I just don’t have the level of enjoyment eating out as I did when I had more sight. However, I do still enjoy the wings.

Me Versus Braille

What a fascinating thing the tactile language of braille is. It utilizes a set of raised dots in a grid to represent each letter of the alphabet, plus numbers and punctuation. There is even a more advanced version called contracted braille that combines common letter groupings to make reading more efficient. It is hard to imagine that dots could convey all of that information through the touch of a finger, but it does.

What is almost as fascinating as the language itself is the history behind it. The story of how the written word has been translated into a language for the blind is a long and wandering one. One of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, recently had an episode entitled The Universal Page. This episode provided a great overview of this history, along with looking at current trends and needs in this space. I highly recommend giving it a listen and reading the post that accompanies it. Notable to me was the emphasis placed on the need for involving individuals with visual disabilities in the development of new tools and methods. Who better to involve in the process than those who need it most?

I myself have always been hesitant to learn braille. I have even had some opportunities to take classes several years ago but I declined. At the time it just didn’t seem necessary considering all the digital tools and audio options that were out there. However, if I am being completely honest, it was more a matter of pride that was really motivating my hesitation. Deep down, by learning braille I felt like it would be an admission of need and I was not yet ready to do that.

Lately I have begun to feel my perspective shifting. My recent blog posts are evidence of that shift along with a realization that my blindness is an integral part of what makes me unique. It does not define me but it is a massive factor in how I live life. To fight this is to fight myself and that really makes no sense. I began to look into options for learning braille and came across Hadley via the American Foundation for the Blind website. Hadley offers braille training through correspondence courses, free of charge, along with a variety of other resources. After doing some reading on the site, I registered and received confirmation that I will begin in a few weeks.

I am excited to take this step. The time just feels right.

Me Versus Carlsbad Caverns National Park

rock formations in the Caverns

A blind man walks into a cave.

Sounds like the opening line of a joke doesn’t it? I have always been fascinated with the array of National and State Parks that dot our country. Of course, most of this fascination has been more intellectual in nature, as I am not an “outdoorsy” guy. I know that I am not the only computer nerd that prefers the indoors, stereotypes do exist for a reason. Recently however, I have been making noises about trying to do more travelling around our area. To try and make some memories by visiting some of the Parks and Monuments that are within a day-trip distance of our home in Lubbock, Texas.

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Me Versus the World

Sometimes I feel like the world is out to get me.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I feel like the world that I live in is not particularly well suited for me. You see, I cannot see, at least not very well. I am legally blind. What “legally blind” means, in my case, is that I am completely blind in one eye and I have considerable loss of vision in my other eye. I have had nearly thirty eye surgeries throughout my life. Most of which came before the age of eighteen, dealing with issues like retinal detachments, glaucoma and cataracts.

Throughout my childhood and early adult years, I was able to live a relatively normal life. I played sports in high school, was a voracious reader of books of all sorts, built my own computers, played video games and drove myself where I needed to go. As my vision worsened as I entered my thirties. Many of those things that I used to be able to do easily had to go away or change drastically. Now, in my mid-forties, I am having to continue to adjust and learn how to live in a world that is designed for the fully sighted. It has not been easy and I want to talk about it.

This will be the first in what will be an ongoing series of articles about living in this world as a blind person. This initial post introduces you to me and will serve as a starting point. At the very least, I hope to put into words what my experiences are on a day to day basis. I will strive to address what I have done using technology and other methods to continue to enjoy those things I love. Additionally, I hope to shed a light on how much more needs to be done in our world for those with visual disabilities and advocate for change.

Is the world out to get me? No. But I’d love to go out and get the world.

Homework for Life

My dad is a storyteller. He tells stories all the time, be it from the pulpit as a preacher and teacher of the Bible or in his normal day-to-day goings on. These stories are not works of fiction either. They are just bits and pieces of the everyday framed in a way that always draws me in. This model of telling stories has been a constant in my life and yet I have not mastered the skill myself.

Today, while scrolling through my podcast feed, I saw an episode of The Art of Manliness called, How To Tell Better Stories and I immediately downloaded it and began to listen. Our host, Brett McKay, interviews Matthew Dicks, who is a well-known teller of stories, both on the stage and in book form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, as I usually do with the Art of Manliness. I wrote down a number of things that struck me in my Field Notes notebook of the day, the 10th Anniversary burgundy DDC reprint.

Mr. Dicks first went on stage as part of a Moth StorySLAM and despite his nerves, he really connected with the experience and the storytelling practice. In this interview, he gets down to basics, explaining his ideas on how to start (with the end in mind) and how to make it memorable by keeping it short and removing details that don’t add to the story.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway was his “Homework for Life” idea. This is his method of sitting down at the end of each day and writing down the one thing that was most important from the day, the thing that was most story worthy. In doing so, he has found a way to remember each day and to slow life down. It changed the way he looks at each day and gives him plenty of great material to tell more stories.

After listening, I went and found the TED Talk that he gave on this topic and I highly recommend taking the 17 or so minutes to watch it. Of particular note to me were his words about being disciplined and having faith in the process. Whether writing it down in a notebook or putting it in an Excel spreadsheet, taking stock of your day is incredibly valuable. It may just help me become the storyteller that I want to be.

Top 10 List: Modes of Transportation

As a writing exercise, making lists of things can be fun and challenging. The first few things on the list are easy, but then filling it to the end can be harder. For my list today, I have chosen “Modes of Transportation That I’d Like to Take.

  1. Train – I love them and the idea of crossing the country in one is so appealing.
  2. Zeppelin
  3. Recumbent tandem bicycle
  4. Cruise ship
  5. Long zip line
  6. Passenger in a driverless car (autopilot) – I cannot wait for this to become a regular thing since as a legally blind guy, I haven’t driven a car in about 14 years.
  7. Segway
  8. Gondola
  9. R.V.
  10. Hot air balloon

Most of the modes of transportation are more leisurely ways of getting somewhere. That fits with my personality I guess. This list was written in a Pitch Black Field Notes with a Blackwing 10001, which is a lovely combination.

Stuff I Learned From Podcasts: Issue 5

Stuff You Should Know – How Tsunamis Work

  • They can travel at speeds up to 600 miles per hour…woah.
  • Tsunami is a Japanese word for harbor wave.
  • A tsunami is formed by the huge release of energy from an earthquake on the ocean floor. The wave spreads out like a ripple going in all directions.
  • The tsunami stretches from the ocean floor to the surface, sometimes a mile or more in height.
  • Tallest tsunami wave ever measured was in Alaska in 1958. It measured 520 meters or 1,710 feet above sea level. That’s taller than most of the tallest buildings in the world.

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How Field Notes Keeps a Secret

Here at Inklings & Paper Things, we love Field Notes. In fact, I credit Field Notes and their design aesthetic for helping to revitalizing my love of stationery things. They are simple, small enough to be easily carried in a pocket and are durable. One of the best part of being a fan of Field Notes is their highly anticipated quarterly limited editions. But as with anything that is anticipated, there are people that simply hate to wait for the edition to show up in their mailbox and instead try to crack the secret beforehand. To this end, Field Notes has to work to keep it under wraps.

MSNBC recently did a video segment about Field Notes and how they keep the secrets from being spoiled. It offers a fun inside look at the company and its iconic notebooks.

Stuff I Learned from Podcasts: Issue 4

Every Little Thing (June 25, 2018): ARRRR Pirate Peg Legs a Thing?

  • Takes a look at some of the common pirate tropes and determines if pirates from the classic golden age of pirates, were real things.
  • Parrots on board (yes)
  • Peg legs as a prosthetic (yes)
  • A hook to replace a hand (not likely)
  • Walking the plank (sadly, no)
    Pirates would more likely just shoot you rather than go through the song and dance of walking the plank.
  • Skull & Crossbones flag (yes)

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