Seeing Things

By | October 3, 2017

Guest post by William Germano

My latest book is Eye Chart, just out in the Object Lessons series. Eye Chart is about ways of thinking about vision – from the first primitive attempts to decide who in the group has the sharpest eyes to the development of lenses and eyeglasses, those awkward and essential armatures that hold lenses in place just so.

One of my primary interests is early modern Europe, which means I wind up reading a lot of strange and something very unliterary things.

A while back I came across a little book that stopped me cold – it was written in Spanish, and it explained, with some very funny anecdotes, the problems of nearsightedness and farsightedness and how lenses could help.  The book – about which not much has been written – was published in 1623.

I had an idea: could I trace a history of attempts to gather precise, reproducible knowledge – medical data, really – about how “good” our eyes were? And that led me to the nineteenth-century giants of eye research, including Herman Snellen – everybody who’s ever had an eye test knows the Snellen chart, with rows of letters, large at top to painfully small at the very bottom.

And that took me all sorts of places – to painters, x-rays, Rorschach tests, other ophthalmological pioneers like Eduard Jaeger, Victorian military recruiting,  Alice in Wonderland, modern advertising campaigns, film history, toys, rude t-shirts  – and helped me understand just how widespread the power of the simple and familiar eye chart has become.

But it gave me something else, too. The eye chart took on a life of its own and became a kind of metaphor for our limitations, a graphic tool that helped us ground ourselves in the visual sphere.

Designed as a medical tool, the eye chart can also be something more – even something metaphysical – guiding us to our sense of self and our place in the world as we see it.

Eye Chart is a little book with a wide span – history and cultural studies, medicine and typography and pop culture  — from Euripides  to Mr Magoo.  Each of us is somewhere in there.  


Germano_Eye ChartWilliam Germano is professor of English at Cooper Union in New York City. He’s the author of two books on publishing – Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (3/e 2016) and From Dissertation to Book (2/e 2013), both from the University of Chicago Press, and The Tales of Hoffmann (2013, BFI Film Classics). His blogs on language appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education and on line at 

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