Images and the future of reading

Steve Martin appeared on Charlie Rose last night to plug his latest book, a novel called An Object of Beauty. Set in the art world, the story takes place among beautiful works of art; the characters, Martin explained, no matter how different they are otherwise in moral temperament, are all lovers of beauty.

Charlie Rose expressed surprise at the number of images included in the novel. Martin’s response was interesting:

I realized when you’re writing with a computer at home, it’s very easy to drop images in…. at first I was going to write it very conventionally without images, thinking, well that would be cheating, I should describe these pictures… and then I thought, you know, I’m wasting sentences here going, “and in the left of the picture there was a lamp… and I thought, I’m not interested in describing pictures you could see so easily…. I’d rather interpret the painting and let the reader actually look at it. (my transcription)

Listening to Martin argue for the images in his book, I was struck by the subtlety with which technology can reweave the patterns we make with text. The literary description of works of art is a poetry all its own; the ancients called it ekphrasis a Greek term meaning “to call out (an object) out by name.” The most famous example is also the earliest: the account of the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad, which Homer describes as it is worked by Hephaistos, god of the forge. In a series of concentric circles, Hephaistos vividly represents the ordered aspects of the world: the celestial heavens, cities and fields with the cycles of raising and gathering crops, the herding of cattle and sheep, and a stage for dancers—

They with well-tutor’d step, now nimbly ran
The circle, swift, as when, before his wheel
Seated, the potter twirls it with both hands
For trial of its speed, now, crossing quick
They pass’d at once into each other’s place.
On either side spectators numerous stood
Delighted, and two tumblers roll’d themselves
Between the dancers, singing as they roll’d.
Last, with the might of ocean’s boundless flood
He fill’d the border of the wondrous shield.(Cowper translation)

In Homer’s account—which runs to more than 150 lines—the massively-figured work comes alive between the stars and the encircling sea.

Of course, Achilles’ shield was doubly inaccessible: not only was there no Google Image search in Homer’s time, but the shield itself was a work of the imagination. But even the problem of fiction needn’t bar authors any longer from dropping images into their writing; image-making tools are readily available and simple to use for any author who wishes.

We might be tempted to trace a decline from Homer’s age to our own time, when imagery is ubiquitous and easily accessible, and writers needn’t bother calling it vividly to mind by way of words. But I think it would be wrong to call it a decline. I’d rather say that ekphrasis, the rhetoric of images, is changing. Where an imagined painting once could shine and signal in words, now an orchestration of actual images can play on the reader’s imagination. The demand to orchestrate, to weave a text, is still as challenging as ever.

When Martin got around to reading a passage, he chose an ekphrastic passage, in fact, in which the main character experiences a revelation of maturity as she stands before a work of art. I found it fell flat on my ears; the text told us of modulations in the character’s state of mind, but the vivid ingredient of the revelatory painting itself was conspicuously absent. But then I realized that the the work itself is likely reproduced on the page, and that its very appearance would likely transform the protagonist’s experience of it into a rich experience for the reader. Without the image, perhaps certain texts in the age of networked images are incomplete—much as the full force of Homer’s works might only be felt if we were to experience them in their original state, as oral performances, and not ordered words on a page.

[Images are details from James Thornhill’s Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan (1710), in the Tate.]

4 comments

  1. I remember being given a tatty photocopy by an English Lit tutor to discuss. It was a short diatribe against conventional poets written by (erm, an unconventional poet? I think it was Ezra Pound but I’ve never been able to find it since.)

    The whole text was centred around the poet’s disgust at a colleague’s use of the term ‘lime tree’. How dare the poet use the mere name of a tree? How is ‘naming’ something poetry?

    I’m guessing the ability to drop in images is like every other change brought about by new technology. It adds to the number of things we can do rather than replaces thought or imagination or whatever it is we’re holding dear this week. If Steve Martin wants to focus on his characters (which is, after all, the USP of the novel) then showing the pictures seems like a good idea.

  2. It’s an interesting analogy—imaging as tantamount to naming. It does sound like the sort of thing Pound would have had a problem with (although he liked names, as long as they were in Occitan or classical Chinese). It’s one way images can be used, for sure, as names. Of course, pix can be misnomers, too…

  3. Images got dropped into/around literature – or literature into/around images – in emblem books beginning in the early 16th century. The frequently allegorical images were not always well-tethered to the text (and vice versa); but they did help the reader to concentrate, in something like the way Ignatius would begin a spiritual exercise by forming a mental image of a place.

  4. Do we have any authors in our time producing writing designed to be read aloud (as Homer did)? Because while a novel is expected to be viewed on a page (with associated images beside the words), a spoken play is expected to include at least a modicum of props that give visual cues. Perhaps minimalist playwrights are of that ilk. Or writers of children’s stories — which are often accompanied by vibrant or exciting imagery but are usually expected to be read aloud as well.

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