Tag Archives: visual disability

More Praise for Paper Books


The following quotation is taken from an explanatory note in the front matter of my bound copy of The Last of the Mohicans, the first volume in a set of classics in an early 20th century printing by The Spencer Press*.

Can anyone say the same kinds of things about digital books published on e-readers?


The services of Mr. Leonard Mounteney, a master craftsman who had served for twenty years as a binder in the studios of Robert Riviere & Sons of London, England, were engaged for this artistic undertaking. Mounteney has in the last ten years won for himself considerable acclaim as one of the wold’s most eminent binders. He approached the task of designing these books with all the fervor and interest of a skilled artisan who loves his work, applying the same thought to these volumes as is usually accorded to the bindings of museum masterpieces, incunabula and priceless first editions. Mounteney was well aware that the name “Spencer” had become identified with handsome illustration, fine printing and exquisite binding and he was most anxious to create books of surpassing beauty.

The Spencer Press” is named in honor of and as a tribute to the memory of William Augustus Spencer, the son of Lorillard Spencer and Sara Johnson Griswold. Spencer was born in New York, was educated in Europe and made his home in Paris, frequently visiting the United States. Spencer became an inveterate book collector, specializing in fine French bindings. He soon became a patron of the fine binders of his day and his collection, now on permanent exhibition at the New York Public Library, is rated as one of the finest of modern collections. Unfortunately, Spencer perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 cutting short a career of great promise.

The books collected by Spencer were mostly nineteenth century works. These volumes represent a definite advancement in many spheres of book production. The authors, publishers, printers, engravers and bookbinders are all representative of what is modern in their several arts, for Spencer was a true collector who insisted upon a high state of perfection in every creative phase of the bookmaking art.

This type of publishing depends more than anything else upon patronage for its existence. The history of fine bookmaking is linked with the social history of the countries where is it practised. The wealthy nobility were usually the patrons of this fine art. The Kinds of France were notable collectors forming libraries of considerable merit. Jean Grolier, Viscount d’Aguisy (1479-1565), Treasurer-General of the Duchy of Milan, friend of Francis I, and ambassador to Pope Clement VII, friend of Aldus, the great printer, was perhaps the most lavish patron of the art of binding and collecting books. To Grolier is accorded the first place among all the great names in book collecting history, and to him is owed the dignified standing in which book collecting is esteemed amond the gentler arts. To Grolier also goes the honor for creating a most important and fundamental style in the decoration of book covers.

From Grolier to Spencer we find the names of many illustrious notables who have fostered and patronized the advancement of this art. Jean Baptiste Colbert, statesman and minister of finance under Louis XIV, was the founder of the Academy of Inscriptions which concerned itself greatly with book decoration. Then there was Mazarin, Italian and French cardinal and statesman, who founded one fo the great libraries of the world which bears his name. During the intervening years there have been thousands of collectors who have patronized the art. In America one thinks of such great names as Weidner, Morgan, Huntington and Hay in this connection.

Such affluent patronage has given aid to many different interpretations of beauty. Books have been handsomely bound in paper, in wood, in parchment, in cloth and fine leathers. They have been inlaid with materials of contrasting colors, hand painted, encrusted with rare and valuable jewels. They have contained gorgeous end papers and fancy doublures. Men have spent years in the binding, tooling and decoration of a single volume.

These bibliophiles collected not only fine titles, bindings and illustrations but fine printing as well. Gutenberg, the father of fine printing, set an early standard which has been difficult if not impossible to excel. The books created by Gutenberg still rank as among the finest examples of book ornamentation ever produced. Then came the handsome volumes of the East with their arabesques, graceful lines and fleurons which found many an eager collector among the gentlemen of Venice. Aldus, the printer, patronized by Grolier, created many examples of fine printing influenced by these same Eastern designs.

The history of fine binding and bookmaking is a long and interesting one filled with many glorious stories of exquisite books. In the creation of this set of the “World’s Greatest Literature,” Mounteney has copied the designs of Roger Payne, the one truly great English binder of the nineteenth century. Payne’s work has known to have a French influence, a delicate decorative scheme of dots, lines and simple designs. Mounteney has added certain elegant refinements of his won an has endeavored to create a set of books that would be a credit to the memory and name of one of the greatest of all modern collectors . . . a set of books within the reach of the true book-lover so that the appreciation of fine and beautiful books need no longer be a kingly prerogative alone.

The publishers do not claim or even dare to hope that these books are to be compared for richness of binding or makeup with the volumes of the Spencer Library, for some of those books cost thousands of dollars and occupied many years in the lives of master craftsmen. It is true, however, that Mounteny in his careful designing has created books possessing rare beauty of design and exquisite good taste which vie in appearance and handsomeness with the Spencer masterpieces. It should be remembered that the original Spencer volumes were designed by hand, tooled by hand, and often printed by hand, whereas these books were created by one of the world’s greatest printers employing every advancement of modern science and efficiency to bring to you books you will treasure over the years . . . books that will add to the richness and fullness of your life.

Reading, Pa. 1936. LEONARD S. DAVIDOW

*Manufactured in the United States of America by the Cuneo Press, Inc. No copyright notice.

(Regular readers of this blog are aware of my preference for books bound in paper. This is not only a Luddite eccentricity, but also a necessity born of a visual disability that makes it impossible to read for pleasure from a screen. If you are an Indie Author, please publish your works on paper, for those of us who need to read physical copies of books.)


Filed under Uncategorized

Oyez! Oyez!


(This post has been recorded as an AudioBlog. See bottom of page.)

By popular demand, here’s a summary of my experience with using Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology to record an audiobook edition of Irish Firebrands.

As a person with multiple disabilities, I’m acutely aware of the limited options for people like me. In addition, I wanted to make an audible copy of my first novel for my mother, who had gone blind while I was writing it.

My mother was an avid, eclectic reader, who amassed an enormous personal library, read to me from my infancy, and taught me to read. Cataract surgery restored enough of her sight for her to enjoy the landscapes visible from her windows, and  to watch television, but because of eye damage from other causes, she can see only parts of pictures. Her brain makes Gestalts to fill in what’s missing, although a related disadvantage of that, is she also developed Charles Bonnet syndrome (visual hallucinations that can afflict sighted persons who become blind).

IrishFirebrandscoverartIt’s also impossible for my mother to read large-print books or even magnified characters on screens, so for many years she’s had to rely on talking books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, at The Library of Congress. When I published Irish Firebrands, all she could do was hold a paper copy in her hands and admire the cover art.

BalabolkaThere are many TTS software packages, most of which use a combination of operating system voices and proprietary voices from other sources. They cost a fraction of what hiring voice talent would cost, but even so, the programs are still too pricey for my nonexistent Indie budget. So I downloaded Balabolka, free software that uses a computer’s built in SAPI 4 or SAPI 5 voices. It reads text in 16 formats (including DOC, DOCX, EPUB, HTML, MOBI, PDF, and RTF), and records in formats with these filename extensions: .wav, .mp3, .mp4, .ogg, .wma, .m4a, .m4b, and .awb.

For the basic document, you choose one voice and set its rate, pitch and volume, but you can record different sections separately and combine them, and the software will also combine different recording formats into one audio file. You need to know how to nest HTML commands (for temporary changes to rate, pitch, and volume), but no other programming ability is necessary. Balabolka is supposed to be able to accept changes to its pronunciation database, and to add emphasis, but I haven’t been able to get those things to work, although that may be a limitation of the voices instead of the software.

pdf_logoSimilar problems exist with Adobe Acrobat’s Read Out Loud utility, which uses only whatever built-in voices are available. This characteristic makes Read Out Loud of limited utility as an audiobook option, because the changes you make to the text to fix pronunciation problems for one computer voice, don’t necessarily work when the document is read by another person’s computer. It also has the annoying habit of reading everything on the page, including headers and footers, and it will pause at page breaks and the end of every line that terminates with a hard return. And depending on the PDF conversion settings, it may read aloud the punctuation, along with the text.

For best results in Read Out Loud, you have to strip out page breaks, headers, footers and apostrophes; then convert the file to PDF, using Standard formatting (no conversion alterations). When you listen to the PDF, take note of any additional pronunciation problems, fix them in your source document, and re-format. Anybody else who listens to the document must use the same voice preference settings you used.

recorded at fromtexttospeechFrom Text To Speech is a free online service, and you can save the files you record. It offers a selection of proprietary voices in American and UK English, as well as pronunciation for other major languages. The proprietary UK male and female voices that they use both sound good, with fewer mispronunciation problems, and the best ability to automatically add emphasis and interrogatory inflection. The drawbacks of the website include a limited number of voice adjustment options, it may be set up to periodically block the ISPs of frequent users, and the length of time it takes to generate an MP3 means it’s appropriate only for short reading selections.

After replacing the computer that I used to write Irish Firebrands, I discovered that the Windows 8 OS came with 3 new SAPI 5 voices: David and Zira (American English) and Hazel (UK English). Hazel is the only one of the three that automatically pronounces “Celtic” properly, with a hard C – but, oddly enough, she can’t say the name of my female main character, Lana. Although they’re afflicted with the same limitations of most other computer-generated voices (they don’t automatically elide, nor can they express emphasis and questions without help), their otherwise lifelike timbre made them a vast improvement over the SAPI 4 generation of voices.

Aside from difficulties due to hearing loss, I find most SAPI 4 voices impossible to listen to for any length of time, although some Sci-Fi writers may like to use them for their hollow, “robotic” qualities. In the Olden Days of cinematic and television sci-fi, it was assumed that robots would express themselves in flat, unfeeling tones – until the advent of the shouting, gesticulating robot in Lost in Space (“Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”), who struggled with his emotions.


120px-HAL9000.svgHe was followed by the frankly psychotic HAL9000 (“I’m sorry, Dave…”). Eventually Droids came out of the closet with their feelings: in Star Wars, a machine sounds like a man (C3PO and his many emotional meltdowns), while a man sounds like a machine (James Earl Jones’s sinister inflection, helped out with a SCUBA respirator, as Darth Vader). R2D2 still “speaks” only with beeps and boops, but his whistles and squeals are distinctly anthropomorphic.

Before starting on the recording, I had to learn how to use the voices at my disposal. To do this, I recorded a book trailer with a voice-over track. I used all three of the new voices, and MovieMaker software. The work took about a week.

On the basis of this virtual audition, and about six months of additional testing, I decided that I liked Hazel, the UK voice. To me, the enunciation of most British actors naturally sounds more clipped than that of Americans (who elide, or drop, most of their gerund Gs and many middle Ts, and soften lots of terminal Ds). Hazel uses non-rhotic Received Pronunciation (dropping Rs, or, paradoxically, inserting them where they don’t exist, such as between a word that ends with a vowel, and one that begins with one), but I was willing to trade the necessity of creating David and/or Zira’s endless elisions, for Hazel’s non-rhotic-English habits. 

map_cm_eng_infoSince then, I’ve figured out how to trick Hazel into pronouncing some Rs, which has improved the clarity of a few words, but she definitely doesn’t sound Irish, because like most varieties of American English, Hiberno-English is rhotic: The Irish pronounce their Rs. But Hazel has learned a little bit of Gaeilge, with the help of the synthesizer at abair.ie.

I’ve learned to correct the multitude of bizarre mispronunciations that crop up unexpectedly, by creatively misspelling words, hyphenating syllables, running words together, changing pitch and speed, dropping terminal punctuation – and adding a few elisions. Unfortunately, there are very few changes that can be made with Balabolka’s global find-and-replace function: most of Hazel’s mispronunciations are dependent on syntax.

Many people dislike computer-generated voices, on principle: The owner of an audiobook hosting service refused to accept my recording, when it came out that I was doing it with TTS technology, even though many of the human-read stories on the site are badly performed or ill-recorded (e.g., sloppy diction, uneven volume, background noise, etc.). It’s also been difficult to recruit and retain beta readers, so I’m very grateful to those who have stuck with the project. Their feedback has been invaluable, while I’ve worked to whip the narration into shape. When it’s “as clean as humanly (and robotically) possible,” the Irish Firebrands audiobook will be available for distribution to the visually-impaired … beginning with Mama.

Readers and writers who decide to try Balabolka are welcome to ask me questions (in comments here, or via the Guestbook page on the Feedback menu) about specific pronunciation problems they’re encountering. I may have already found a tweaking trick that will work for you, too. And anyone out there who has some favorite fixes, please share them with us? No sense in all of us reinventing the wheel! Eyes – ears – even sanity – may be at stake! Thanks!

This blog post was recorded in Microsoft Hazel United Kingdom English, edited for rate, pitch, and pronunciation, using Balabolka text-to-speech converter. How many pronunciation edits can you find?

audiobook logoSeeking Visually Disabled Beta Readers for Irish Firebrands text-to-speech (TTS) audiobook testing. Click HERE for Details.


Filed under Audiobooks, Reading, Visual disability

Breaking Out of The Bubble.

Yellow_Submarine_(1968)_avi_-_00008Many of you have honored these pages with your visits, comments and likes. I’m grateful for your support, and hope that my efforts will continue to merit your attention, as I strive to publish content of value. This blog has been slowly accumulating followers, and as far as I can tell, attrition has been very small; about one percent over nearly two years.

In the coming months, I hope to publish several more blogs, each with a different focus. It’s difficult to work out the right balance between blogging, developing my first novel in various editions, and maintaining the momentum of writing my second novel. I welcome your patience, as I diversify my writing portfolio.

I’m also following about 100 blogs, which I think is my limit. When I follow a blog, it means I like to pay personal page visits, to read additional essays by the blogger, join conversations, follow interesting external links, and explore other past content (“back issues,” so to speak). So, it can take me a month or more to work my way through my list.

There are some difficulties with the way the system is presently constituted. Our blog host offers a great many attractive formatting themes, but not all of them are reader-friendly. For example, some backgrounds don’t provide enough contrast, and a while a black background can make a dramatic presentation, especially for photos, that’s not necessarily true for text, especially if the font is small and sans-serif (lacking those little flourishes at the tips of the letters).

Sans-serif fonts can be difficult to read, because the serifs are what help the brain identify individual characters. This can be a problem for persons with some kinds of visual impairments, such as astigmatism, which can range from difficult to impossible to correct with eyeglasses and/or contact lenses. For this reason, sans-serif fonts are best presented in much larger sizes.

Unfortunately, blog themes do not always permit changes to fonts or background colors. Browsers usually allow accessibility adjustments that can override page specifications, but changing a browser’s permanent setting to improve the readability of one web page, can make other pages worse to read. Using the temporary zoom in the browser can help, but only if the theme layout is relatively simple.

Whenever possible, I like to pay a personal visit to a blog, but if the theme’s font, color and contrast combinations are hard on the eyes, I stay in the Reader, because it automatically enlarges the font and does away with difficult backgrounds.

An associated problem is that visits via the Reader don’t count in the statistics the same way that page visits do, so some blogs are set up to force a personal visit. I’ve sadly had to forgo reading some interesting posts because I knew it would take heroic measures to read the page comfortably.

Finally, the extra “Like” link at the top of the page is a two-edged sword. It’s close enough to the “Follow” link, that it’s easy to unintentionally “unfollow” a blog by mistake, and when my browser is at high magnification, the “Like” link disappears. If I’ve zoomed in, and I’ve forgotten to hit the button at the bottom of a post, I may not have that final reminder before leaving that blog.

I’ve no idea how widespread the blog theme readability problem is, but there are a great many of us with age-related and other visual disabilities. We may not be as bad off as Hubert’s Grandma, but a less-than-visually-friendly theme could be one reason why a blog may seem to struggle with maintaining readership. We really do like your blog better than a bathtub toy.


Filed under Blogging, Reading, Visual disability, Writing