Science Book a Day Interviews Katherine Bouton


Special thanks to Katherine Bouton for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Shouting Won’t Help: Why I – and 50 Million Other Americans – Can’t Hear You

Katherine Bouton was editor of the Books and Theater sections of The New York Times. She was the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine from 1998 to 2008. Her previous jobs at the New York Times include deputy editor of the Book Review, deputy science editor of the New York Times, and four years as a senior editor at the Magazine, from 1988 to 1992. She began her career at The New Yorker Magazine, where she worked as a fact checker, among other editorial jobs, eventually contributing both fiction and nonfiction to the magazine. She has also written for the Times Magazine and Book Review, among other places. – From The Writer’s Institute

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#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

I lost my hearing over several decades, beginning when I was 30. I ignored it for a long time but in 2008 I had a really serious drop, which left me profoundly deaf in my left ear and with only 30 percent of the hearing in my right. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I already had hearing aids but at that point I also got a cochlear implant in the left ear.

I had been working at the New York Times as an editor for more than 20 years but after that last loss I couldn’t do my job anymore. The Times offered something for me that didn’t involve hearing but I didn’t want that kind of job, so I took a buyout. Once I was unemployed, I was totally at a loss. All of a sudden I found myself without a job, without my hearing, and with no clue as to how to deal with any of it. I looked for books that might describe my experience but couldn’t find anything — except David Lodge’s hilarious funny and sad novel “Deaf Sentence.” So I decided to write one.

#2 – What is the take-home message you are trying to leave your readers with?

For people with hearing loss, the primary message is to treat it (the consequences of not treating hear loss are serious) and to be open about it. Don’t try to fake it. That’s what I did for most of my life and it not only was exhausting but it backfired. People didn’t know I couldn’t hear but they did think something was off — that I was a snob, or bored with my work, or maybe just stupid.

I hope that people who don’t have hearing loss will read it as well. For them, the take-home message is a better understanding of what hearing loss is like. I also give suggestions for dealing with the people in your life with hearing loss — the best ways to talk to them, for instance, to insure that they hear you.

#3 – The book itself is replete with data, statistics and interviews. How did you go about doing the research for this book?

I was a science editor for some years at the Times and I’ve always loved science. I began doing the research on the internet, collecting mountains of data and research papers and so on. Later I made several visits to Johns Hopkins, to talk to their otolaryngologists, I talked to my own ENT about the cochlear implant center in New York that he founded. I went to Harvard to talk to researchers there who were working on interesting studies about noise related hearing loss. I also spent several days each at the University of Washington and Stamford, where researchers are looking for a biological cure for hearing loss. Along the way, I talked to many people with hearing loss, I had many many email exchanges, I read a lot of research papers.

#4 – What do you think future generations can do to save their own hearing?

We need to be aware of the damage that noise produces. By far the majority of people with hearing loss have noise-induced hearing loss. Even though we know this, very few venues observe noise ordinances (unless the the neighbors complain) and governments don’t enforce them. We do have pretty strict rules on noise exposure in the workplace. The military has a very high rate of veterans with noise related hearing loss and it’s been in the forefront of developing hearing protection that allows you to hear but also shuts down when a loud noise — a shot or an explosion — occurs. I think we’re becoming more aware of noise — I see people on ride on lawn mowers wearing noise canceling head phones. But we have a long way to go. Go to almost any restaurant, for instance, and take out your decibel meter (there’s a free IPhone app for that) and you’ll probably find the noise in the 90 decibel range — that’s literally deafening, especially for the people who are exposed to it all day, like waiters.

#5 – Do you have any future projects/books that you can tell us about?

I’m doing a lot of speaking about hearing loss to various kinds of groups. This month I’m talking at the Institute of Medicine in DC at a conference on hearing health in the elderly. I’ve been part of several university symposiums on hearing and the brain. I also talk to a lot of hearing loss groups.

I learn a lot from others with hearing loss, about the kinds of confusion and questions they have. Based on this feedback, I think there’s a market for a more practical guide to living with hearing loss, a companion book to Shouting Won’t Help.

After that I have a long term project unrelated to hearing loss — but I expect to continue talking and reading and writing about hearing loss because it’s a subject that people actually know very little about. It already affects 48 million Americans and as baby boomers move into old age their mild or moderate hearing loss will become more serious loss. We’re all going to need to know more about how to recognize it, how to treat it, and how to prevent it.

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