To those afraid of visual literacy

Recently a colleague showed me a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I can’t wait for someone to give it to me for my birthday this month. However, her enthusiasm for the book had been quashed by another colleague, also an English teacher, who dismissed the book as “not literature.” The reason for the dismissal is that the book is composed entirely of drawings. The reader must look closely to construct the plot and themes of the book. Wow! Imagine.

Drawing to communicate is not a new technique of a semi-literature generation; drawing is a venerable form of literature that made its appearance in caves. In the case of The Arrival, which I cannot do justice to because I have not read it as closely as I will when I own it 🙂 [birthday hint], the silence of the drawings is the perfect voice for an arriving immigrant.

The thinking of the scoffer annoys me, in part because it is indicative of a type of elitist thinking that limits students and makes those in favor of No Child Left Behind so sure they are right about teachers. The more I think about Tan’s achievement, the more I am convinced the book is a type – one type among many – that students could gain from reading. In the current age of digital media, writing is not done only with text; powerful and successful writing often includes a special blend of text and image such that neither would be as effective without the other.

Consider for example, the presentation Shift Happens, available on YouTube. The elegant simplicity of the presentation happens in part because of the three-part harmony of text, numbers and image. By the time the thesis is presented – Shift Happens – viewers have been convinced by a series of vivid impressions and images working together. It is the ability of the presenter to blend all three that demonstrates his or her literary skill.

Consider the image from the PopTech conference held in Camden, Maine this month. Would the impressions be as strong or lasting if the Guardian had merely printed the number of cell phones thrown away each month? Not hardly.

Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, speaking of an expository book, writes that “You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts.” From what I saw of Tan’s book, to those who are afraid of the fate of reading in an electronic age , be reassured it is not a threat to textual literacy. Instead, it calls for the kind of intense and close observation of the reading state that Birkerts refers to in The Gutenberg Elegies. It is the close and careful observation that “point and click” and “copy and paste” rob readers and writers of. For what we are most missing, when it comes to reading is the time to do it.

If you are unafraid of shift, join the conversation.

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