If the editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin had had his way in 1959, Julia Child’s best-selling Mastering the Art of French Cooking — possibly the most influential work in American cookbook history — would never have been published. Even after Julia spent over a year tightening her manuscript at the editor’s request, condensing it as far as she felt she could, he still rejected it, judging it “so huge, expensive, and elaborate that it was certain to seem formidable ‘to the American housewife.'” *
This editor thought he knew his audience. He was wrong.
Julia knew her audience. She changed publishers. In 1961, Alfred A. Knopf served up this monumental pièce de résistance — all 734 pages — to the cooking world. That world, like Knopf’s, has never been the same.
Recently, as I meandered through a confusingly laid-out hospital, which shall remain nameless, this sign caught my eye.
First, I struggled to figure out what it meant. (My car was in Parking 2. Should I use this door?) After I solved that mystery — yes, indeed, this door would take me to my car — I began to puzzle over the presence of the Braille lines that appeared below each line of text. Someone had spent money and effort to (theoretically) enlarge the audience for the message. But for whom could these tactile words have value?
I did my best to imagine such a person. Flipping a coin, I made this person male. I’ll call him Sam. What can we assume about Sam?
- Sam is blind.
- Sam can read Braille.
- Sam knows that the signs exist.
- Sam is not in a wheelchair. (If he were, he wouldn’t be able to reach the sign).
- Sam has a companion who’s in a wheelchair. (Otherwise, Sam would have no use for the information.)
- Sam’s companion is unable to read the sign aloud. (Why else would Sam take the time to read with his fingers?) Ergo, his companion is illiterate or dumb or very young or also blind. I picture a five-year-old. I’ll call her Julie.
- Sam is unfamiliar with the wheelchair-accessible routes, and he has no other companions capable of guiding him. (If he knew the routes or had a guide, he’d have no use for the sign.)
- Sam wants to get to Parking 2. (We have to go with that one.)
Who is Julie to Sam? A neighbor girl? His niece? No way. He’d never be sent out alone to fetch her. She has to be his daughter. He could be a single dad, proud and capable. Maybe Julie fell and broke a shin bone. Maybe the two of them recently moved here (Portland, Oregon) and have no friends or family in the area.
We come now to the scenario: Somehow, Sam and Julie found their way into the hospital. They’ve completed their business there, and they’re ready to go home. Sam is now wheeling Julie down a hospital corridor with one hand, feeling his way along the wall with the other.
“Hang in there, Punkin. I’m sure there’s a sign here somewhere…. Aha.”
His fingers glide along the first row of dots: PARKING 2 LEVEL G.
“That’s what we’re looking for.”
STAIRS TO LEVEL G.
“We can’t use the stairs.”
NOT AN ACCESSIBLE ROUTE.
“That must mean we can’t take the wheelchair down the stairs. Duh.”
USE RAMP TO PARKING 2 LEVEL H.
“Okay. Where’s the ramp?”
[ _______ ]
Hell-o-o. Sam doesn’t need a ramp. Sam doesn’t have a car. Sam’s never going to feel his way along these walls while single-handedly wheeling his little girl through a labyrinth.
Whoever required that this sign be translated into Braille had no conceivable audience in mind.
How about you? How well do you envision what’s happening on the receiving end of your messages? How fully do you imagine your readers? Who is your Sam?