Author Nick Gleeson was sighted until the age of seven when an automatic supermarket door struck his head, causing a retinal detachment. Despite not being “into reading as a child”, and having difficulty accessing braille and audio books of his choice growing up and while studying, Nick’s life is now all about reading and writing (oh and adventuring!) Having written a memoir about his extreme adventures (including scaling basecamp at Everest and the top of Kilimanjaro, becoming a Paralympic athlete, a marathon runner, and a skydiver) and completing a degree in Literature, Nick spends his time reading for pleasure and to inform his writing practice.
Nick shares in this interview that not being sighted yet being passionate about reading has meant he’s had to be patient, and to accept, that he just can’t read a book when everyone else can.
Changes to publishing workflows, which will allow books to be available in any format from the time of publication, will mean he no longer has to wait 12 months to enjoy a book that others can simply pick up off the shelf.
Nick graciously shares his story with the AIPI Knowledge Hub about his experiences reading over his life.
Before I lost my vision as a seven year old, I actually wasn’t really into reading. I think I might have even had a learning difficulty and didn’t love school all that much. I remember pictures in books more than anything. I certainly liked watching cartoons about adventures — Gilligan’s Island and things like that. I do remember enjoying Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss too.
I lost my vision similarly to my brother. We both had head injuries that caused us to lose our sight – in separate accidents. My brother’s was a bit before mine and my mother also had sight issues.
I have a wonderful memory of my Dad, after the accidents, reading to us. I wouldn’t say he was really into books but he read Westerns to us from time to time. It’s the smell of this occasion that I recall. Dad had just showered and smelt clean and of soap. My brother and I sat up in bed with him as he read aloud to us. The smell of the book is in my memory too.
When I lost my sight I had to learn to read for myself in a different way. I learnt Braille. First you learn the letters and then small words and eventually sentences but it was challenging. I went to a school for blind children in Kew, Victoria. They had a little library of Braille books and I remember going over all the shelves looking for adventure books. I remember one about rowing across the Atlantic ocean. I liked short stories then too – but that was more about my attention span!
We had one teacher who enthusiastically read aloud to us. He did all the voices of the characters! He would read for half an hour to an hour each day and when he finished we all shouted together, “Please read more – please read more!” It was the highlight of many of our days.
At age 13 I watched the film If You Could See What I Hear and I was really inspired. There was a book I read called Being Blind, Being American and I loved hearing about the goals the character achieved. But ultimately all my stories were consumed via Braille until audiobooks came along in large cassettes.
Most of my life I’ve just had to accept that I can’t get the books I might like, when I might like. It has always been quite limited – and costly too. A recently published book can take up to six or 12 months to get access to – that is, either transformed from a print book to Braille or Audio book. Years ago there was no hope of getting a book before 12 months. Quite often I’d ask for a book through the Braille library, and then if not there, through interlibrary loan.Most often they weren’t available so it was just a matter of accepting that. What more could be done?
Still there are limitations but it is better.
At uni, it was a nightmare getting access to books. I did a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Literature. Yes – this coming after not being much into books as a young fella! In first year English we did Pride and Prejudice – one of the most popular books of all time – and I couldn’t get a version of it in time for my essay. Thankfully, my teachers were understanding. My essays were always handed in late. I graduated, of course, but it was far from ideal.
I had to get very creative in my approach to reading. I got students who found it hard to be motivated to read the textbook or prescribed novel to read it aloud to me. I would record it and effectively made my own audiobook. It helped them and it certainly helped me. It was quite frustrating at times, but I always found a way.
I know I said I didn’t love it when I was younger, but I love reading now. I mostly read via audio books. I subscribe to Audible and I’m a member of the Vision Australia library with the app. I download a book onto my phone and use a linked speaker and sit back and relax with a cup of tea.
Non-fiction that shows bravery and is powerful, even if it’s sad, is what I lend towards. I read the auto-biography of Barry Humphries. He’s such a comedian and his writing ability is amazing. I’m reading the Wicked Women of History by Marg Nicolas, Before I Say Goodbye by the journalist Ruth Picadee. It presents a challenging real-life situation demonstrating courage in humanity. I’m re-reading the Thornbirds and Harpo Speaks about Harpo Marcs.
Literature is so important to my life now. Reading is vital to me as a writer. I have a thirst to read for inspiration and I get charged up reading about human mentality and the human spirit. My first book was very personal and conversational about my life. But I can see my next book being a slightly different voice and tone. All this reading helps me shape that. When I’m not reading I’m into sport or challenging myself.
Having books more accessible would mean everything to me, really. And to my wife who is also blind and is a keen reader. It is critical for me to access books and quickly. It’s taken a lot for both of us to not feel like we’re being selfish for simply wanting a book.
We used to think that asking for a copy of a book in Braille or audio was expecting a lot. That we should be patient. But everyone else can simply walk into a book shop and get a book. It’s been a process for us to accept we can’t get all the books we want, when we want them, but also we need to remind ourselves that in asking for a version that works for us, we are not being pushy. We are being proactive and helping to break down barriers.
Many Ways of Seeing was my first book mostly about my personal experience. My next book is a closer examination of some of the adventures I’ve been lucky to go on focusing on the characters I’ve met and the funny experiences I’ve had along the way.
Generally speaking it’s really pleasing to see the changes happening in the book industry. The future is exciting. We do need to keep pressing and work together. It’s fulfilling to be able to have a creative part of my life in reading and writing and contributing to conversations. Without access to books I won’t refine my voice to then pass onto others.
Big thanks to Nick Gleeson for sharing his reading story with us.