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Getting an Earful

Opinions fly at a book group for the blind.

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"Rose leaves her husband to get another one," says Mike Moore disapprovingly, calling her a "poster child" for the me generation. "What a shallow person."

"There's a psychological term for her," says Thomas Dumas.

"Dysfunctional," interjects Patricia Perkins.

The biting comments fly among the group of eight people huddled in a semicircle:

"She was like a person who's committed a crime and doesn't want to be discovered."

"She tends to pick up men."

"You think she wanted to be a nun?"

Rose realized she didn't love her husband Thomas after she became pregnant. She left him, intending to put up the baby for adoption, and took refuge in a home for pregnant women operated by nuns. She decided to keep the baby and married the home's groundskeeper without bothering to divorce Thomas.

Rose's life might make a good subject for a soap opera, but she's actually a character from Ann Patchett's novel The Patron Saint of Liars. Yet the people dissecting her character haven't even read that book. They listened to it on tape before participating in this discussion group for the blind. The group meets at noon the fourth Thursday of every month in the Talking Books Center on the fifth floor of the Harold Washington Library. The center has more than 11,000 fiction and nonfiction titles and about 100 popular magazines on tape. It serves approximately 4,400 patrons. The group started in 1997, when the center opened as part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a program operated through the Library of Congress offering free braille and recorded materials. Members of this group order their selections through the center and receive tapes by mail at no charge.

"We only discuss books by topics or themes, never by what's on a certain page," says Marcia Trawinski, who works as a counselor for people with disabilities. "That's because for us there are no pages."

Today's session has to first confront the group's problems with the reader. The Patron Saint of Liars is a story told by different characters. Rose and her daughter relate parts of the novel, and so does Son, the groundskeeper. Reader Mitzi Friedlander sounds fine as the mother and daughter, but she's not as convincing as Son, who's supposed to be a huge man--six foot seven.

"I just have a problem with Mitzi's voice altogether," says Steve Benson. "It seems to grate." Benson lost his sight as a child and is a voracious consumer of books on tapes. He's a regular participant in the discussion group as well as the press assistant for the Talking Books Center.

Friedlander is one of several readers employed by the American Publishing House for the Blind, which produces books on tape. Benson's criticism seems to draw the group closer, as they consider what they like and don't like about the various narrators.

Jim Pletz, the director of adult services for the Chicago Public Library, regularly leads the discussion, though he's not blind. Sensing a lull, he takes on another topic. While Rose says she doesn't love Thomas anymore, Thomas obviously still loves her. "Why did Thomas keep the flame alive?"

"I don't know," erupts Dumas, a retired CTA bus driver. "That wouldn't happen with me. She's gone a month--shucks! I'm on the prowl. After a month, that's it."

Everyone laughs.

"But easier said than done sometimes," says Moore, a Loop attorney who's extended his lunch break a few minutes in order to meet with the group. "Right, guys?"

The discussion ends after about an hour, but others have lasted for several hours over novels like Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and such nonfiction works as Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol. The group will next take on Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which will be followed by Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Janet Fitch's White Oleander.

"Sometimes when you discuss a character it's like discussing your friends," says Trawinski. "It just keeps going. Some of the most lively discussions have been books we don't like. Sometimes we've closed up the library.

"For people who have lost their sight, this is a way to get back to an important part of the experiences they enjoyed, a way to discuss a book and be connected to an intellectual experience."

Most of the members lost their sight late in life. "Reading was my passion," says Perkins, who retired from a clerical job at the Illinois College of Optometry. "My daughter was trying to get me to join this because there was a problem with me getting books on tape for my favorite authors. One cost $43. This makes a big difference."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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