Blind since birth, Stephen Kuusisto’s unrelenting optimism combined with the relative accommodations for today’s blind resulted in a much lauded 1998 memoir, Planet of the Blind. His new book Eavesdropping may well be the most triumphant celebration of the hearing life to date. Kuusisto’s blindness gives way to moxie the sighted wouldn’t dream of, like a childhood fearlessness of dark corners, attics, or lions. Of the latter he writes, “They sounded fat and bored. I pressed my face to the bars of the cage.” Faith in his seeing-eye dog allows him to focus on sound—he can hear not just a motorcycle, but one in need of a tune-up. He takes John Cage’s statement that “every sound [is] part of a composition” to heart and frames each noise this way. Kuusisto’s relentless and lilting lyricism peppers his affecting insights on the glories of music, voices, even the relationship between the direction of wind and the rumble of traffic in New York.
He’s almost frustratingly good-natured sometimes, as when dealing with a bumbling curator at the Enrico Caruso Museum of America who was “talking fast because my blindness was an additional ghost in the room. He was probably worried that his collection was mostly a visual display.” Self-pity is nearly nonexisistent, and when asked how he became blind, he thinks to himself (but never aloud): “How did you become such a nondescript little nebbish in a cheap business suit?”
The demands of living without sight require an indefatigable memory and sense of humor, a multimodal way of navigating the world and daily leaps of faith. For Kuusisto, a lifelong traveler, going anywhere requires no self-delusion, just self-acceptance. It can be done “solely for the music and the music would always be unpredictable and it would never fade away.”