Tag Archives: ageing

Review of Cataract – John Berger (illustrated by Selçuk Demirel)

2012, Counterpoint, 64 pages

Cataract by John Berger (illustrated Selçuk Demirel)

I’m fine. Really. Never better, as I like to say. But here’s a story that led me to this small but tall book. It begins several years ago. I kept wiping my glasses, the right lens. Under some conditions, it seemed like they were a little bit dirty, ever so slightly hazy. The vision was still fine for reading and for distance. I never thought much of it, and ascribed it to the glasses, which, from the wiping, had been scratched up slightly. At the last eye exam, I mentioned it to the optometrist, who said it was due to a “floaty” which would likely melt away. What is more, the vision in my right eye was actually testing better, which was surprising. It turns out that improved vision is one of the warning signs of a cataract, something I would learn later. Oh, to give you a frame of reference this all started happening in my 40s. The immediate events that led up to this story took place a month or so ago, just after turning 48.

I’m a cycling commuter. Last month, I was out on a ride going through town. It was a clear and dry day, but cold. It was winter. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, but it had snowed recently. The roads, as usual, were beaten up from all the snow plows. As I was riding along, I hit a huge gash on the road that chattered my teeth, made my heart skip a beat, and blew out my front tire. By using one of my nine lives, I managed to stay upright (whew!). My first thought was “What the hell?!” I looked back, and saw the huge gash in the road, the one that I had failed to see. Then I knew it was time to make an appointment to see the eye doctor.

I practise a lot of psychological warfare with myself. Everything is always good. When it is not, I delude myself. For instance, over the last decade, I’ve been riding over more rocks and gashes in the road. Instead of blaming my eyesight, I’ve been blaming the lack of upkeep on the roads (although in the back of my mind, part of me knows that it might not be the roads but that I’m just not seeing, and hence, avoiding, all the hubcaps and screws and rocks and crap on the road). But after that scare last month, the Jedi mind tricks just weren’t going to do it anymore. It was time to make an appointment to see an optometrist.


In the province of British Columbia, Canada, regular optometrist visits aren’t covered by provincial healthcare. Visits are over $100. But if you have a referral from your family doctor, the price goes down. So it was a multistep process. First a phone appointment to my doctor. Then the doctor faxes a referral to the optometrist. The cost goes down to $60. Bingo!

At the optometrist, they do a bunch of tests with fancy machines, each of which must be $30k+. In one machine, you stare at a dot straight ahead of you. When you see flashes of light in your peripheral vision, you hit a button. It is like a video game. Another machine blows out a puff of air into your eye which causes you to recoil. A third machine scans and takes photos of your eyes. The detail of these 3d photos is really amazing. One wonders how optometrists used to do it just a few decades ago without all this technology.

At the end of the appointment, the optometrist says: “Your eyes are good but you have the beginnings of a cataract. I’ll refer you to a really good cataract surgeon to see if surgery is the right solution for you.” He can get me an appointment in five months. I’d like to think if cataract surgery is required, this would be covered by BC Medicare. I’ll find out soon.

Books, Books, Books

When dealing with the unknown, books are always a good resource. The local library had three books specifically dealing with cataracts:

  1. Cataract Surgery: A Guide to Treatment (2015 by two optometrists, Paul E. Garland and Bret L. Fisher)
  2. Cataract Surgery: A Patient’s Guide to Treatment (2020 by two optometrists, Robert K. Maloney and Neda Shamie)
  3. Cataract: Some Notes after Having a Cataract Removed (by John Berger)

It was sort of surprising there were only three books on cataracts at the Greater Victoria Public Library (which serves a population of 400,000). But it turns out, three is pretty good. The two books by the eye surgeons are short (under 100 pages), filled with diagrams, and give lots of information about the options available. Seeing that people reading them may be suffering from cataracts, that is good that they are short and printed in a decently large font!

From the two professional books, one learns about how the cataract is an opaque spot in the lens, and all the different methods for chipping or lasering out the existing lens and putting in a new synthetic lens. The cool thing is the new lens can also be formed to compensate for near- or far-sightedness. Many people, after having cataract surgery, find they have to wear glasses less often, or not at all.

Another reassuring thing is that the rate of success is 99%, or close to. A decade ago, I considered getting Lasik surgery to get vision up to 20-20 without glasses. But when the literature claimed a 95% satisfaction rate (which sounds quite good), I was like … hey, that means that 1 out of 20 people were not satisfied (dry eyes, lack of night vision, etc.,). With vision being so critical, I declined. Good thing I did. It turns out that when you get cataract surgery, the surgeon has to perform some kind of calculated calculation on how strong to make the synthetic lens. There are many variables and fudge factors in the critical calculation. If one has had Lasik, it makes the calculation that much more difficult. But it can be done, and often successfully.

The John Berger Book

From the science books, I learned much. But then there was this book by essayist John Berger. He talks about his personal experience. His fears. How his eyes dimmed. How, after the surgery, he recovered and whites became white again. The crispness of the colours came back. The Berger book is VERY short. On each of the facing pages, there’s a bit of text and an accompanying line illustration.

Berger can write. He has an imaginative voice that makes the process of losing and rediscovering vision a work of art. The book took all of ten minutes to read and left me wanting more. Many of the pages contained mostly blank space. There are two or so pages of beautiful, inspired writing.

If you have cataracts, or are wondering what it is like to have cataracts, this book conveys the psychological impression better than the science books by eye doctors (which are also excellent and written with passion in their own right). But this book is also too short. It left me wanting more. But those two or so inspired pages of writing make it worthwhile to check out. And the line drawings giving life and personality to the eye and the faculty of vision are both utterly profound and exquisitely simple.

A beautiful clothbound book. My feeling is that it is too short. If you’re going to make something called a “book”–even a short one–it has to be at least an hour read. It’s like a blog. Blogs at 1000 words are pretty good. But, even if you are a genius blogger, a blog with 10 words doesn’t cut it. But hey, maybe this isn’t a “book,” but a work of art. In that case, it is fine.

Author Bio:

John Berger was born in London in 1926. He is well known for his novels and stories as well as for his works of nonfiction, including several volumes of art criticism. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, was published in 1958, and since then his books have included the novel G., which won the Booker Prize in 1972. In 1962 he left Britain permanently, and he lives in a small village in the French Alps.

Selçuk Demirel was born in Artvin, Turkey, in 1954. He trained as an architect and moved to Paris in 1978, where he still lives. His illustrations and books have appeared in many prominent European and American publications.

Cataract by John Berger (illustrated Selçuk Demirel)

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.