Every once in a while I have my students participate in an experiential activity whose purpose is to teach them just how much information contemporary technologies provide them access to. In the activity, students must put away their laptops and smartphones, and then use nothing more than the technologies that existed in the early 1980s to answer a series of very challenging questions. They are permitted to use the school library, and can look up books on the library's computer (given the absence of a card catalogue) but they certainly cannot surf the web, use keyword searches, or do anything that would allow them to answer the questions in the nanoseconds it would take them with technology.
On one occasion, a student came up to me who was trying to figure out what a particular word in one of the questions meant. "Can you tell me what this word means?" the student asked, to which I replied, in teacherly fashion: "Where would you find the definition?" The student looked at me puzzled, then looked at the question again, but doing so didn't seem to help.
"I don't get what you mean," he said.
"Wouldn't you use a dictionary?" I replied, after a short pause, giving him that look that suggested I was trying to break something gently to him so that he wouldn't feel altogether too silly. But what he said next was a stunner.
"Uh...how am I supposed to do that? You took away our laptops..."
Before the bibliophiles out there begin to lose their minds over this, let me take a moment to say that the kid was right. It's likely that he had never looked up anything in a print dictionary, and who can blame him? Dictionary and encyclopedia publishers have largely moved to online platforms now, and I can get dozens of definitions for a single term, cross-indexed, hyperlinked, and all in the time it takes me to type in the word.
The problem, however, is that many writers and thinkers in the past two decades have used stories like the one above to write articles about the "Death of the Book," suggesting that digital technologies have changed the publishing landscape forever and that it's only a matter of time before books are entirely obsolete. Inevitably, this prompts others to write about how the book can't die or about how the news of its impending death is an exaggeration of the facts.
The problem, as I see it, is that when people write about the "Death of the Book," they're beginning the conversation by talking in metaphors. Framing the discussion in this way isn't really productive, however. People have strong feelings about reading, and about the relationship they have with books, and so it's no surprise that they decry what they see as the end of a beautiful friendship.
The whole argument, however, is silly. Should we really be worried that the advent of electronic libraries, the decline of traditional bookstores, and the changing reading habits of young people are threatening to destroy printed books?
Why shouldn't be worried? Well, we went from carving things on stones to writing by hand to printing out manuscripts, to housing them digitally, and in the process we seemed to increase the number of people who can read and who enjoy it. And it's simply not going to be the case that we discover new ways of reading that are awful or terrible or that people won't like, because someone will simply come up with something that isn't awful and isn't terrible and that we do like.
I grew up loving books and going to libraries and bookstores. I loved leafing through dictionaries and encyclopedias to discover new things. And I especially loved the smell of walking into my local comic book shop and seeing the titles, old and new, lining the shelves.
And although I still love books and feel a sense of nostalgia about my childhood reading experiences, I'm not going to pen an elegy about the death of the book. They are changing and transforming and gradually becoming something new and different, but when all is said and done, they are just the medium through which we get to learn about other people's stories.
And it's not like we're going to stop telling each other stories any time soon.
If you enjoyed this article, or even if you didn't, don't worry. Perhaps the book will make a resurgence some day, as shown below:
Everything I know I learned from comics, so I owe it to comics to learn about its history!
At the 2014 Reading for the Love of It Conference in Toronto, my first session was entitled "Everything I Know I Learned from Comics." If that's the case--and really, it is--I think I owed it to comics to try and figure out where the tradition of visual narrative actually comes from. Of course, for this, one needs to be armed with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a work whose importance to the genre cannot be underestimated.
So, the next time anyone casts aspersions at your idea of introducing visual narrative into the classroom because it's somehow a "lesser" genre than poetry, the novel, or short fiction, tell them that it actually has a tradition extending much further back than the written or even the spoken word.
Better yet, just show them this...
When we think about comics and graphic novels, we should think about them in the broader context of visual narrative. Visual narrative is telling a story in whole or in part using visual images, like illustrations or photographs. If we think about comics and graphic novels in this way, we can more easily recognize them as the product of a tradition that extends much further back than the tradition of writing.
Cave of Altamira, 20000-35000 BCE
The Cave of Altamira in Spain is known as the Sistine Chapel of Cave Art. Its depictions present a breathtaking visual narrative of the reality of life in Ancient Spain. The dynamic movement and energy of the illustrations tell us not only how ancient man perceived the natural world and its creatures, but how he felt about them. Taken together, these illustrations form a visual narrative that tells us an important story of early man, and serves as one of the most important examples of our species' ability to tell its stories with visual imagery.
Tutankhamun's Tomb, c. 1323 BCE
We owe a great deal to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This ancient artifact containing a combination of three different language systems, gave rise to the field of Egyptology. When we look at ancient hieroglyphics, like those found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun, we see a fascinating early example of visual narrative. Told through visual imagery that contains representations of human beings, animals, and symbols, ancient hieroglyphics are sequential art of the highest order.
The Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1077
The Battle of Hastings and what it decided changed the course of European history. William the Conqueror and his Norman army crossed the Channel and won a decisive victory over the English, killing their King, Harold, when an arrow struck him in the eye. Perhaps even more remarkable than the Battle of Hastings, though, is how it was commemorated in the town of Bayeux. Woven into what has come down to us as a 70m long fabric is the Bayeux Tapestry, perhaps the most visually stunning graphic story in the world. A combination of image and text, it tells the story of the Norman conquest beginning before the Battle of Hastings and extending through to William's coronation.
Stations of the Cross, c. 1600 CE
Many of us are confronted with a rather profound work of visual storytelling whenever we step foot within a church. The work in question is a common installation called "The Stations of the Cross," which generally came to be recognized as such in the fifteenth century. These stations tell the story of the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and are often arranged around a church as either inscription-bearing sculptures or plaques, or, in some instances, stained-glass windows. Each station bears a title, such as "Jesus falls the first time," or "Jesus is stripped of his garments." As has been noted of William Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress," the stations effectively form a storyboard or visual narrative of an important sequence of events in a person's life.
"A Rake's Progress," 1732-33 CE
"A Rake's Progress" is a series of eight paintings completed by William Hogarth in 1732-33 which were then produced as engravings for printing in 1735. They tell the story of Tom Rakewell, a wasteful "rake" who inherits a small fortune, wastes it through frivolous living, ends up in Fleet Prison, and then Bedlam hospital. Because "A Rake's Progress" effectively tells the story of a character's rise and fall in visual form, it has been thought of as an early example of a graphic story (Scott McCloud) and even a storyboard (Alan Parker).
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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