My A-Z of Reading: I is for Illustration

November 23, 2016

I grew up with books, and very dull ones they were, too, to look at: very few illustrations indeed. What pictures there were, even in books for children, were pen and ink line drawings every few pages, and if you were lucky a couple of rather poor colour plates tipped in somewhere in the text, perhaps as frontispiece and somewhere else. The stories were fine, but you needed the stamina to work through text, unrelieved.

Factual books were little better: colour illustrations were exemplified by the ubiquitous Ladybird Books, now the subject of much parody and mockery, but in my childhood they were about as good as it got! Books like The Big Book of Science for Boys (I kid you not, they had titles like that) were illustrated with shoddy artwork by hack artists. Photographs? In your dreams.

In school, the textbooks were grim, dull, again only illustrated with monochrome line drawings. This was fine for charts and diagrams but did not enhance one’s wider appreciation of history or geography, art or science. But, all the observations above come from hindsight: at the time – in my childhood – I can’t say I noticed the poverty or the paucity of illustration. After all, TV was black and white; at the cinema you saw the occasional ‘technicolor’ film…

At some point there was clearly a revolution in printing technology which allowed good quality colour reproduction and the use of photographs. I recall that many of the early illustrated books came from Eastern Europe where presumably cheaper labour, and the desire of those countries for western cash, allowed quality work to be offered at a reasonable cost. And now, of course, pictures are everywhere – high quality, full colour, on every page, in any and every book, for children, adults, school and kitchen. How did people manage to follow recipes in the olden days without all those food-porn photos?

Seriously, no-one would want to go back to those grey days and dull volumes, but I do wonder what the effect has been on the ways we interact with and consume text. I’m sure the magical and beautifully illustrated children’s books available nowadays make reading stories much more appealing and attractive to young children. But eventually they have to move on to novels, which still tend to be mere text, black ink on white paper.

At school, textbooks are now a riot of colour illustrations which often seem to get in the way of the text, which itself has to be chopped up into bite-sized chunks in order to induce children to bother paying any attention to the words. At which point, I find myself wondering, just how much depth and detail about a topic are they actually going to take in? We reached, at some undefined point, the notion that everything, including education, had to be exciting, entertaining, enjoyable and therefore full of pictures – even better if moving ones! – to the detriment, perhaps, of the depth and detail available in those vast tracts of – oh so dull – text, and the concentration that one had to develop to take them in, concentration now no longer required…

I do sometimes feel like a moralising fuddy-duddy when I observe that not everything in life is full-colour and exciting, that many people will have to spend vast amounts of time at rather dull and tedious jobs, and that being mildly bored can stimulate both mind and brain to creative thought. Somewhere there has to be a mean, where real knowledge is not atomised by being smitten into little gobbets and trivialised by pictures, where curiosity can be stimulated, children challenged and creativity awakened.

Meanwhile, I long for the days when my newspaper was only black and white, and I still enjoy black and white films… I need to crawl back into my ark.

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