The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest To End Deafness

S. & S. Apr. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9781501167096. $30. SOC SCI
In this thoughtful biography, Booth (English, Univ. of Pittsburgh) reexamines the historical legacy of Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922), the inventor of the telephone. Booth acknowledges Bell’s role in helping people communicate, but she does not shy away from his complicated legacy within the Deaf community. Booth writes that she was compelled to research Bell when her Deaf grandmother was denied interpretative services in the hospital, resulting in her death. Raised in a mixed hearing/Deaf family, Booth had always understood that American Sign Language was a language. She writes that Bell, however, had a lifelong obsession with oralism (teaching Deaf people how to speak) and looked down on ASL. When his methods proved unreliable, he veered into eugenics, Booth writes, and promoted legislation that would forbid Deaf people to marry one another. Bell’s writings are believed to have inspired Nazi sterilization policies. The narrative of Booth’s book occasionally drifts into the minutia of research and patent law, yet the contrast between Bell’s inventions and his descent into eugenic thought is thoroughly gripping and unsettling.
VERDICT A stunning biography that documents the Deaf people’s lengthy and ongoing efforts to have ASL acknowledged as a valid language. Booth’s writing stands apart and sheds insight on disability history in the 20th century.
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