I came across this book when trying to look up images of a diving bell when reading Airman. I’d never heard of a diving bell before and had no idea what Colfer was talking about. The image search led me to a page with a short summary of this book.
This is a short memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle. In 1995, he had a stroke that left him fully paralyzed, with what’s known as “locked-in” syndrome. In other words, he could think but not communicate. The description I read said he was only able to move his left eyelid, but after reading the book, I found that that wasn’t quite accurate. He could swivel his head a little bit, and after a good eight to ten months of PT, he was able to make a couple sounds a day. Eventually, his mouth could open wide enough to put in a lollipop. He couldn’t, however, talk, swallow, eat, etc. The doctors found a way for him to communicate. They took the French alphabet (he’s French) and ordered it by use-frequency. Visitors would read the letters off a sheet of paper, and Bauby would blink his left eye when they got to the right letter. Letter by letter, he communicated with the world.
Over the summer of 1996, he dictated his thoughts to a woman named Claude Mendibil using this blinking technique. The entire book (the French version, of course) was written in a series of blinks. That totally blew me away. Still does. What a remarkable achievement! Bauby died two days after the French publication of the book.
Now, the flip side. While the creation of this book is certainly outstanding, I honestly didn’t feel the book itself was that great. I feel really terrible for saying this. Honestly, I wonder if it would have been better in its original language. I think there was something lost in translation. I wonder if perhaps more had been communicated in French. It was definitely an interesting look at an insider’s perspective on locked-in syndrome. I really, really hope I never end up in a situation like that. It’s terrifying. And I really wanted this book to be more than it ended up being. I was disappointed by it’s lack of…well, everything. There just wasn’t much in there. There was very little about the syndrome, very little about his emotions, little about his family and friends and magazine and life. I read the entire book today, and hardly remember a thing about it only a few hours later. By the end, I wasn’t exactly sure what Bauby meant his point to be. Then again, it’s not like he could go back and edit. He had to memorize his sentences in advance and repeat them to himself over and over before dictating them. His achievement really was remarkable, and I give him full credit for that. Like I said, I feel really bad for being disappointed in the book.
There’s a movie out now based on this book. I might check that out.