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The first person I knew who had actually written a book was Robert Russell. His memoir, To Catch an Angel: Adventures in the World I Cannot See, was published in 1962 and was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, included in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series, and translated into fifteen languages. It was also reprinted in a sixty-cent paperback edition, which I still own, festooned with testimonials about this “tough,” “brave,” “inspiring” blind man.
Russell was chairman of the English Department at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1965. Each year, he was provided with student readers, and before classes began the college’s financial aid office sent me to meet him. On the way, I stopped at the bookstore to leaf through To Catch an Angel and prepare myself to encounter a living writer. I remember the excitement of holding the book, seeing his photo, then closing my eyes and running my fingers around the edges to imagine how he felt when it first arrived.
Blinded at the age of five by a splintering croquet mallet, Russell had gone from being, as he wrote, “a citizen of the night” to being a graduate of Yale University; he had even been a varsity wrestler there. Assertive, resourceful, resilient, along the way he had learned to read and to navigate a world of obstacles, survived a bull attack, ridden a bicycle, and come to appreciate “the sounds, the smells, the taste and the feel of nature.” He completed his doctoral work at University of Oxford, where he courted and married Elisabeth Shaw, sister of the British actor Robert Shaw, who played the blond assassin in From Russia with Love. Russell had been teaching at Franklin and Marshall since 1955.
I was eighteen when we met, and I had just spent the summer in bed, recovering from mononucleosis. Stuck there, I had done enough concentrated reading, for the first time in my life, to learn that I needed eyeglasses. The reading had been typically haphazard: Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun, Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, all sickbed gifts from my aunt Evelyn; a few Hardy Boys novels; Joe Garagiola’s Baseball Is a Funny Game; Harvey Cox’s The Secular City and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, both assigned by Franklin and Marshall for freshmen orientation week. The only classics I had read, as of September 1965, were those required in high school, Silas Marner, Great Expectations, The Return of the Native, Romeo and Juliet.
Now, still weak, anxious to impress Russell, barely balanced between awe and fear, I found him, covered in pipe ash, rocking back in his office chair. He instructed me to sit beside his desk, handed over a sheet of paper, and said, “Read this letter to me, would you?”
A few minutes later, I was hired as his reader, a job I held through the next four years. Squeezed into a side chair between his desk and door, I read student papers aloud, pausing so he could type comments. I read personal correspondence and departmental memos, magazine and newspaper articles, galleys of his 1967 novel, An Act of Loving. Pacing my words to match his keystrokes, I read passages from poems or essays as he typed them in braille. After a few months, in those days before audio books were widely available, he occasionally asked me to record novels or extended selections of poetry onto tape.
Those recording assignments liberated me from regular working hours, since I no longer had to be in Russell’s presence to do my job. Using for my studio a vacant storage room near his office, and working with his enormous reel-to-reel machine, I read works of literature in a way few young, would-be authors get to. In isolated and timeless periods of reading aloud, I learned how language flowed or failed to flow, how breath acted as a hidden punctuation within the rhythm of prose. Vocalizing prose showed me that dialogue could establish character and move narrative, that a writer could reproduce the sound and texture of thought, the private music of subjective reality. It forced me to enter into and differentiate characters, to inhabit voice and bring out what is normally silent when one reads to oneself. It exposed me to the delicate dynamics of scene construction, enabling me to sense—with my body—when things went on a little too long, when a moment went awry.
I was reading with my mouth and tongue and throat, not just my eyes, learning that good writing fills the body with its rhythm, moves through the reader with its own tempo. Sometimes I found myself gesticulating, twisting my torso, rising on my toes, shaking my head for emphasis. Fully immersed, I was experiencing stories or poems in the old way, orally, passing them along as a conduit between author and audience.