Long Live Illustrated Books!

Last week on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Sam Sacks demanded: “Bring Back the Illustrated Book!” As far as I’m concerned the illustrated book never disappeared. If nothing else, today it is more alive than ever. Providing a brief history of how novelists of yore often worked closely with artists, Sacks writes, “the interplay between art and text is rich with possibilities that few fiction writers have even begun to explore. Illustrations are fun. Giving up on them sacrifices real pleasures for a needlessly narrow conception of literary purity.

via Lisa Congdon

via Lisa Congdon

In 2007, I edited Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, the story of two families told through sixty-three entries, each of which was paired with a photograph. The following year, I was very lucky to be involved with an amazing collaboration between Paul Auster and the artist Glenn Thomas, The Inner Life of Martin Frost. In the October 2009 issue of Print I wrote a short piece titled “Fiction for Designers,” which celebrated the growing number of illustrated fictions (not to be mistaken as graphic novels). That same year, two high-profile illustrated fictions hit shelves, Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. In 2010, Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive relied on illustrations and thorough research to tell the story of Marie and Pierre Curie; this work of non-fiction was a finalist for the National Book Award. Last year, Shapton wrote about and illustrated her time as an Olympic-class swimmer in Swimming Studies. All of these books work as fully realized narratives by virtue of how the authors forged text and imagery, making for truly singular works.

Sacks cites a passage from Henry James about how visual imagery distracts from text. James, Sacks explains, was “worried about movies. If prose was going to lean on the crutch of pictures, however charming, it was going to quickly find itself surpassed by far more dazzling mediums of visual entertainment.” Sacks is correct in that more authors could embrace using illustrative material to enhance their writing, but should you want more images with your literature fear not!

If authors are hesitant to work with artists, artists have no reservations about working with authors’ words. Perhaps it is a result of the image-driven world, or perhaps it is just the natural progression of a longstanding tradition that has never gone away, but the past few years have yielded some incredible illustrated interpretations of canonical literature: Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures (as I have noted here before, Melville’s book was not paid much attention until the release of an edition featuring Rockwell Kent illustrations). Russ Kick’s ambitious three-volume series The Graphic Canon, which I wrote about last year, drives home how, more than ever, visual artists are engaging with the work of novelists and poets to respond and reinterpret words traditionally left on the page to fend for themselves. In the past few months, two more wonderfully different books have been added to this growing list.

via Tara Books

via Tara Books

In his Page-Turner piece, Sacks mentions the collaboration between Charles Dickens and artist H.K. Browne. Dickens also worked with Samuel Palmer, whose “vignette illustrations on wood” adorn the first edition of Pictures from Italy. On the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, Tara Books has published a gorgeous excerpted edition of this travelogue, featuring Italian artist Livia Signorini’s “dialogue with the text.” Dickens set off from France, opening with a staid description of the journey’s start, replete with the “English travelling-carriage of considerable proportions” to be expected from any well-heeled nineteenth century European vagabond. But the Dickens who wrote the words in this book is not to be thought of as the author of Oliver Twist and Hard Times. Before arriving in Italy, Dickens delivers this stunning description of a fortress in Avignon, France: “The recollections of its opposite old uses: an impregnable fortress, a luxurious palace, a horrible prison, a place of torture, the court of the Inquisition: at one and the same time, a house of feasting, fighting, religion, and blood: gives to every stone in its huge form a fearful interest, and imparts new meaning to its incongruities.” There is an ecstatic reverence and rapture that the places he visits bestow upon his writing. In the words of the edition’s editor V. Geetha, “Sometimes the words themselves become cues for a sense of moving images, anticipating the lithe energy of the cinematograph.”  Here is Dickens on Pompeii: “lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun.”

via Tara Books

via Tara Books

It is no wonder that Signorini was moved to assemble collages that embrace the span of time that clearly resonated with Dickens as he explored Italy. Images from antiquarian books cozy up to Photoshop embellishments like enlarged rigatoni, made even more impressive by the gatefold pages across which these compositions spread, complementing Dickens’s running theme of the moment being everything and nothing, honoring the poignancy of stone, water, light, and shadow.

via Lisa Congdon

via Lisa Congdon

Lisa Congdon has illustrated “Objects,” a section from one of literature’s great enigma’s, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. First published by Claire Marie in 1914, without illustrations, this slender volume represents Stein’s attempt at a new grammar, stretching and distorting commonplace vocabulary in prose poems that behave like funhouse mirrors. Many argue that Stein cribbed her tricks from Cubism, each entry serving as a portrait of every object subjected to Stein’s singular scrutiny. Take these two curious fragments:

“A Piece of Coffee”: “A single image is not splendor.”

“Nothing Elegant”: “A charm a single charm is doubtful.”

At work here is a lesson in the subjectivity of perspective. Singularity, so Stein makes clear, is elusive, and overrated. Congdon’s illustrations parse these sentences, being as literal as possible with concepts that evade being contained. Congdon’s interpretation of “Red Roses” looks like a mounted buck’s head adorned with roses. Like most of the images in this edition, it is cute and accessible, serving as a welcoming counterbalance to the warped geometry of Stein’s prose. But the images are deceptive. The entries, which demand many reads, out-loud readings where linguistic expectations baked into our brains trick your tongue and eyes, stutter the reading process – “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot.” As you confusingly make it through the handful of words and attempt to find some purchase in the clean simplicity of the illustrations where you expect a connection, often all you are offered is a disconnect. Yes, there are roses, but what is “pink cut pink” and why the head of a deer?

via Lisa Congdon

via Lisa Congdon

It is hard to imagine ever growing tired of this book. The more time you spend with both Stein’s text and Congdon’s illustrations the deeper you want to dig, the more you want to think about the relationship between the words and imagery, or lack thereof. The experience of reading this book enriches your perspective as turns of phrase and glimpses of a fire releasing lettered smoke haunt your memory and project themselves on the everyday objects that surround us.

Both of these books portray the depths of surface appearances, from winding stretches of road to things we do not think about at length, usually. In both books, the words hold up on their own but the imagery amplifies and subverts those words. Sam Sacks is right. More writers should consider illustrations, and employ them, as they craft their tales. Luckily, there are many good examples of such books, both old and new, that marry storytelling with imagery.


If you enjoy illustrated manuscripts, don’t miss An Illustrated Journey: Inspiration From the Private Art Journals of Traveling Artists, Illustrators and Designers.

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