Able Listening

Literature from every age has reflected fact and fantasy about a variety of human conditions named, in contemporary terms, disabilities. Chief among these across genres as well as time are emotional and intellectual disorders ranging from the madness in the sailors evoked by the Sirens’ song (Homer) through the curtailed capacity of Lennie Small (John Steinbeck) to the currently news-grabbing Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher). Physical incapacities that inhibit movement are also pan-historical narrative staples: the Mali epic of Sundiata, Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the quintessentially Victorian Little Lame Prince (Dinah Craik) are but three extraordinarily tall trees in a forest of works where character movements are disabled.

Some recent youth fiction in which characters live with blindness, communication-inhibiting stuttering, and mutism have been recorded with care and talent that offer listeners more than the distinctive clarity each author evokes in these particularly challenged characters. Because listeners meet these worlds with ears instead of eyes, the language used to create and sustain storytelling in which such capacity differences is realized absorbs the listening reader in an even richer experience: the power of words, and of speaking, ascends to a personal experience with the characters’ worlds.

The contemporary American teenaged boy at the center of Love and First Sight, written by John Sundquist and recorded for Hachette Audio by Pat Young, has been blind his entire life, a situation, we learn along with new friends he makes, that means he has no capacity to understand color, light, shadow, and how these elements supply meaning to such creative expressions as painting and photography, and such political realities as racial recognition. This isn’t a novel about being blind but rather about the experience of acquiring sight—albeit for a limited time—after becoming expert at negotiating the world (both physical and social) through smell, sound, taste, and texture. Because listening reader scan place themselves into a state of suspended eyesight (although without being able to suspend the accrued knowledge of appearances), they can become more keenly connected to such details as learning how perspective can be described in words and how frustrating a quiet Prius can be if one can’t spot it.

The historical novel for slightly younger readers, Cloud and Wallfish, by Anne Nesbet and recorded by Will Ropp for Brilliance Audio, concerns a friendship between an American boy and a German girl who are living in East Berlin for some months before and then during the denouement of the Soviet regime. Noah’s speech is so heavily impacted by a stutter that he would not be readily understandable if the narrator (both in the sense of literary perspective and in the sense of voice actor) emulated it. And yet listening readers can maintain an awareness of what, for Noah, is a character trait as well as a disability as Ropp carefully differentiates his pacing between passages in which Noah is speaking aloud and those in which his observant inner monologues are presented. The latter also serve as clear evidence that physical stuttering does not mirror any stumbling of intellectual fluency.

In Remember to Forget, written as a Wattpad project by Ashley Royer and recorded by Will Lasley with Blink, A teenager’s grief and depression have manifested physically in mutism. Hearing this novel, rather than reading it visually, accentuates how that condition both impacts Levi’s friends and family and bears no influence on his interior verbal life. He’s sharp, sarcastic, and engaged with the present (as well as grieving the past with its dead girlfriend matter); listeners get to hear that interior voice, thanks to Lasley, as well as the contents of the copious written messages he uses for interpersonal communication. While visual readers literally “see” both these verbal contents, listeners hear both, and that doubles down on awareness of how muteness, too, has its limits, rather than serving as the limit of character potential.

Aloud, all three of these stories put the reader into each character’s experience of his challenge: there is no skimming over the hard work needed both by them and by those communicating with them to reach mutual understanding, no “look behind the curtain” that print can offer the impatient. Instead, the listening reader is submerged in aspects of these challenges that offer the opportunity empathy built on experience (however brief and art-induced) provides.