Pictures and literature

Pictures speak louder than words, they say, so how come there are no illustrated poems, plays, novels, or short stories?  Wouldn't a picture of, say, Hamlet, save us from reading the whole play to understand his plight or at least understand him better?

While it is true that an article from the People's Republic of China may benefit tremendously from a photo illustration with regard to the reader's perception of certain geographical facts (you can picture yourself there), the photo itself does not express anything that will help us understand the minds of the Chinese population or Chinese culture as such.

An example in point: Hemingway's literary style depends on the reader's imagination to fill in the deliberate holes that the writer left out with the explicit purpose of having us sweat to find the missing information. And no picture will help us here, only distract us.

More than anything, the writer's intent is to make us see mental pictures of people and their actions (not things, buildings, fields); and if the environment (setting) is of any importance, he lets us see what is necessary for us to focus on the essential characteristics to set the mood of the story (after all, the writer also leaves out certain facts so as not to distract us).

So, the cry for pictures in textbooks is a misunderstood and absurd conception of what there is to learn: in Geography: yes, a help, but not all there is to learn; in Math: why at all? (illustrations and graphs, yes, but not portraits of famous mathematicians); in literature: certainly not since what a(nother artist's) picture can tell us is not what we are looking for in literature (cf. books turned into filmscripts).

It is, in fact, amazing that the people elected or employed by the public to oversee the teaching in our schools are so easily fooled that they uncritically welcome any new technological development without regard to their applicability; but most disturbing of all is their inability to discern between what may benefit the students' understanding of any given object or subject and what may not.

It is true that some things are easier to understand from looking at them directly than from reading a description of them, but not all matters can be "looked at".  Further, by assuming that all subjects will benefit from visual (and oral) illustration, the offical planners disclose that they've given in to the generation that was brought up on advertisements.  Much of the problem regarding that generation's inability to read is expressed in the cartoon saying Why Johnny Can't Read - The Video.

Words are no longer the accepted primary means of conveying messages and rightly so, but it's difficult if not impossible to imagine that people before the massive bombardment of our senses (i.e. before films and visual aids of all kinds) did not experience any deep emotions from reading the bare text.

Web pages need to be "inviting" (as if any serious reader needs persuasion if the subject is interesting and the writing is to the point), and soon the cry for "advanced" teaching methods that include some sort of visual presentation will be impossible to overhear.  What this will do to our teaching standards is difficult to predict, but one likely outcome will be the loss of self-induced imagery and general reading skills.

What should be encouraged instead, is the students' ability to express themselves in crisp, vivid images to counter the passive reception of other people's images.

February 2001,
Erik Moldrup