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Michael: So it's not just the voice itself, but the fact of working that way, without using your eyes to scan the words on the page, that makes reading and writing difficult?

Joel: Like a child, I appreciate being read to, even by a computer with a voice like your worst dystopian nightmare. The problem is that I can't scan backward and forward visually to check details, to maintain a sense of context, and to enjoy optimal recall when that text, vocalized, is in the air and gone, to paraphrase Eric Dolphy's remark on the ephemerality of music. Writing is really a challenge. Monitoring the flow of thought, the coherent use of imagery, the rhythm and melody of the language. I used to observe as I typed, correcting course instantaneously, doubling-back to tweak something and then plunging forward again. And knowing that even the most sprawling first draft could always be

Joel on the difficulty of reading and writing

inspected later, visually, to see the sculpture leapout from within the superfluous stone. Now I have to plan meticulously, holding a kind of sketch in my mind, filling it in as I go, and committing each particle of thought and language to memory.

Michael: In what ways do you think this new method of working affects the finished product, the final draft of a piece of writing?

Joel: Writing without being able to see the words I type can yield unexpectedly good results or produce horribly dull, pointless prose. At best, I may wind up with an essay or story in which every word, image, and thought seems inevitable, and the overall effect coherent and convincing, even moving. But all too often, what I get is something very stiff, and a little bit off, like someone who shows up at a rave in an ill-fitting tuxedo. At which point, regardless of how much concentration and time I've already expended, I've achieved nothing more than a first draft.

Joel: The device you remember was a closed circuit TV reading system (CCTV). Some CCTV's use your computer's screen for display, but most have their own monitors, mounted above a movable reading table on which the camera lens is focused. This is the type I have now. I use it mostly for examining bills, reading snail mail, and CD liner notes. At first, I used a CCTV to read entire books, but now the glare (unnoticeable to normal eyes) and the extreme magnification needed to keep print from looking as if it's been chewed up by insects makes this impossible. The talking computer trick is done with a text-to-speech system, a screen reader. Mine is called Jaws for Windows, from the Henter-Joyce

Joel on using CCTV.

Company. Jaws lets me perform all computer tasks, including e-mail and Web surfing. The technology emerged in the days of the text-based DOS operating system. Later, developers had to scramble to adapt the concept to the graphical interface of a Windows or MAC display, find menu alternatives to the icons and keyboard equivalents to mouse commands. Despite the robot-like synthesized voice and, more importantly, the profound adjustments required for reading and especially for writing by ear, I love this thing, and can't imagine life without it.