As I thought over my favorite book/illustrator combos, stories and images came to my mind. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, was the first. What more could you want for a cover than the cobweb bedecked title, with little Charlotte hanging from it? There is Wilbur clutched in the protective arms of Fern, looking timid, sweet, and vulnerable. Then there is Fern. She has a calm face and messy hair pulled back in a playful ponytail. Without a doubt, Garth Williams’s illustrations have a way of opening up the heart of a book and revealing its soul with pen and ink on paper.
The next books to come to my mind were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic series, also illustrated by Garth Williams. I can remember Laura holding Charlotte, her ragdoll, in her arms. Her head is tilted and she seems content as she hugs the doll and her family stands around watching her. Then there are the pictures of Pa: Pa with his hair sticking up in the air; Pa with his buffalo coat on, eating crackers while he’s stuck in the snow, Pa just playing the fiddle. Each picture is a window into the world and life that Laura offers to us in her books.
When a writer and an illustrator work well together, they are like a master musician that carries us along with his beautiful melody and moving harmonies. But as magical as this can be, what about when it doesn’t work? What about when the two clash and you are stuck with those discordant words and images stuck in your head?
Have you ever read a book and been frustrated that the illustrations in the book just don’t match the pictures in your mind? This happens, by the way, so often to my wife and children that mostly they skip over the illustrations in books when they read them. There are great books that seem to be cheapened somehow by bad art.
These thoughts show us the powerful role the visual arts have in making impressions. There is, after all, a reason why we have the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by it cover.”
All arts have influence, but not all art has equal access to our souls. The more access I give media, the more influence it has over me. The more my soul is influenced, the more power it has for good or evil.
I like to picture a soul like a city with walls, and as John Bunyan once said, there are gates in these walls. The largest of these gates are the Eye gate and the Ear gate. These are the main routes through which the merchants of ideas must pass. Through these two gates almost all knowledge is communicated to our soul. This means that whoever controls them has great sway over my will, mind, emotions, and in time, my beliefs.
Though all arts interacts with these gates in some way, the way they do so is different. Let us think about music as an example. Why is it that in the movie Jaws the director decided to use that music that would forever after become a pop culture icon…“da dun… da dun… da dun, da dun, da dun?” Even if you have never seen the movie, it still invokes the same response. What would happen if we muted the music during all those famous fight scenes where Errol Flynn is Robin Hood? It would somehow lose something without those swelling classic notes. This is because when music comes up to my Ear gate it enters right inside and passes by reason and begins to transact business with my emotions almost instantly. The deal is done and the influence is granted even before reason has a chance to know what is going on! These feelings then influence reason, and these two together inform our imagination.
Let’s move on to movies. There is probably no more powerful visual art than a movie. The Movie Merchant brings his whole caravan with him: music, acting, words, sounds, image, all are his servants, and they are all selling something. His wares pass through both the Eye gate and Ear gate at the same time. He involves our emotions and reasoning in intense bargaining in a matter of moments. They are so impressed by his presentation that they take whatever he shows them. But there is more. The Movie Merchant does not need an introduction to the inner castle of the soul. He already has direct access. Normally the imagination must be a part and must usher the seller to the king, but with movies this is not necessary, for he has brought his own interpreter. Our imagination has nothing to do but to sit back and watch the show. The work is all been done for us, or we might say, it is being done to us.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a movie is worth a thousand pictures. Once the gates are open to my soul, the merchandise the movie leaves behind never goes away. Forever after, my mind, will, emotions, and imagination are changed for good or for ill. We all know the truth of it. We can never unsee what has once been seen.
This is why reading has such a special place in the merchant guild of arts. Images are concrete; words are abstract. Images act upon us; words interact with us. Words only have purchase where knowledge of them has gained them access. Karen Swallow-Prior put it this way,
“We cannot desire what we cannot imagine, and we cannot imagine what we have not seen.”
Living in a tropical climate in West Africa, I can say the word “snow” to people that have lived here all their lives, but that word holds no meaning for them because they have no experience with it. There are no mental images to link it to. The word is said, but the minds retain a blank space. It has no influence.
With these ideas we can see the checks and balances God has worked into the power of the written word. Words paint pictures in our minds, but the only colors they have to paint with are the images and events we have already experienced ourselves.
This balance of power, that reading and words are dependent on our own imaginations to gain access to the citadels of our souls, is one of the chief virtues of reading in our modern day of visual media. Today everything seeks to work on us, whereas books, by their very limitations, must work with us.
If a hero beheads a giant, and we read about it as a family, each person present sees a different mental image. Each will be drawn by personal exposure to his or her ideas in the past. The abstract words must work with his or her imagination. By the sheer fact of his or her limited experience and innocence, the child sees less than his parents that have lived and seen much more. But if a hero beheads a giant, and we watch it on a movie, then everyone receives the same mental image, the one chosen for us by the director. A word can be unknown, but a picture can never be unseen. All about us we can feel the ever-increasing pressure to ‘get with the times’ and abandon words for the power of pictures and the media that presents them. Though pictures can be our friends and allies, there should be a special place made in our life for words. Words, unlike images, have the unique power of increasing our exposure and knowledge without directly destroying our innocence.
Featured image by freepik