The Power of Books

We all had that moment in childhood didn’t we… when the pretty pictures in books suddenly came second to what the pages were actually saying. (Well, for some people, maybe that hasn’t happened yet.) But for a time, shorter or longer depending on the individual, it was a book’s illustrations which were a big factor in what drew us to a particular book.

Image
William Blake
Illustration from The Book of Ahania, plate 2, 1795.
Intaglio etchings, designs colour-printed, 28.8 x 23.2 cm.
Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

My personal favourites as a child included such gems as Puddle Lane, the Berenstain Bears, and Andy Ant, and then as I got older, I loved the Wind in the Willows for its beautiful illustrations – as well as for its story. And then finally, we come to the point where pictures are no longer required; we prefer to imagine what the characters in a story look like for ourselves, create our own storybook landscape in our minds, and revel in the fact that we, with the guidance of the author, were able to design a realm in which stories grew and became a form of reality. The imagination is a powerful tool indeed!

However, at some point in the evolution of reading, there comes a time when we begin to appreciate the beauty of illustrations in books all over again. But, this time it is for different reasons entirely. The artist’s ability to bring the author’s words to life can be astonishing, beautiful, and inspirational. By pairing this interpretation of the text with our own interpretations and imaginings we end up with a fully formed and deeper understanding of the overall picture.

So, this is my challenge to you: the next time that you open a book, and it happens to have a form of illustration in it, do not study one alone and disregard the other. Instead, take both illustration and the written word, and observe how author and artist have united to come up with the finished article. You may agree or not, as is your prerogative, but take the time to see at least that one person’s interpretation into account! After all, isn’t it interesting to see how one story can be read in various ways by different audiences?

Image
William Blake
Illustration from The Song of Los, plate 5, 1795.
Colour relief etching, with added hand colouring, 23.1 x 17.3 cm.
The British Museum, London.

The Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, is currently doing exactly this. If you’d like to discover more about the power of illustration, now is your chance. The exhibition Representing the Word: Modern Book Illustrations will be running until the 31st July 2013. If you’re not planning on being in the Ohio area anytime soon, pick up a copy of Osbert Burdett’s William Blake to peruse from the comfort of your own home!

-Fiona Torsch

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