Book Review: Shouting Won’t Help

Shouting Won't HelpShouting Won’t Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can’t Hear You
By Katherine Bouton
276 pp. Sarah Crichton Books. $26.

“Could a giraffe have eyebrows?” she asked.

I thought it an odd conversational gambit, but the woman on my left was a cousin of the bride’s father, so I tried to give a thoughtful response: “Why, I suppose most mammals have eyebrows, although it’s hard to tell, you know, because of their fur and all.”

My dinner companion raised her own clearly visible eyebrows, “Why in the world are you going on about a giraffe when I was asking about that carafe? What’s wrong, can’t you hear?”

I made an appointment with an audiologist the next day.

As thankful as I am to have good hearing aids, there are still times when I struggle to hear. Katherine Bouton describes it well in Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 million other Americans–Can’t Hear You:

“Being hearing impaired is like being in Paris and knowing just enough French to ask an articulate question, and then being completely unable to comprehend the answer.”

Bouton gets it. She knows what it’s like: She has difficulty understanding speech on the phone and would much rather email; she’s the one laughing along when everyone else is laughing—even though she can’t hear the joke; she misses out on whispered asides, murmured wisecracks and the ever-entertaining conversation of young children. If you are hearing impaired, her book is worth reading just for the relief it brings from realizing that others struggle too.

But be forewarned, Bouton can also be annoying to read. It took her over 20 years to accept that she needed hearing aids. I found myself growing impatient with her. Five years maybe, but 20? She was rapidly losing the ability to process language, something that’s difficult to regain. I wanted to shout, “Get a move on! Do something!” But as she points out, shouting doesn’t make speech more understandable.

Even after she was fitted with hearing aids and ultimately with a cochlear implant, Bouton concealed her progressive hearing loss from her friends and colleagues. She worried that hearing aids might make her appear old and thus incompetent. This unwillingness to let others know she was having trouble hearing ultimately cost Bouton her job as an editor of the New York Times Book Review. Unaware that she was hard of hearing, her co-workers saw her instead as aloof and disengaged—not a team player. Her honesty in writing about this period serves to highlight how strong the fear of seeming old is in our culture and what harm it can do.

Her experience also seems to have created in Bouton a desire to share everything she has ever learned about hearing loss–and that’s a considerable amount. If you want practical tips for living and working with someone who doesn’t hear well, you’ll find those tips here. (They’re good ones, too.) If you want to know more about hearing aids– their cost, types, fit, what to avoid, what to look for—Bouton covers it. If you’re interested in research on biological cures for hearing loss such as gene therapy and cell regeneration, see chapter twelve.

And if, when you’re finished, you’d like a good discussion about whether or not giraffes have eyebrows, see me. I never did get to finish that conversation.

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