When you are a kid there are a couple of huge reading milestones. The first is being able to read at all; then, after a while, there is the magnificent graduation on to ‘chapter books’ which look like grown-up books although thinner and with a huge font size; then there’s the final stage, the move to chapter books without pictures. This is the ultimate transition. All the kids I’ve looked after who passed this point have coming shuffling up at the time to show me what book they’re reading, proudly pointing out the thickness, the subject matter, the important absence.
After that stage you rarely pick up a book with pictures in it. I’m reading a biography of Virginia Woolf now and, as usual, the few pictures are confined to the inserts thrust together on shiny pages towards the middle; you look at them separately to reading the text. Books with pictures are coffee-table books or art books, enormous things you can’t read on the tube. Fiction – serious grown-up fiction – has no pictures.
The exception is W.G. Sebald, who shows how effective photos can be in fiction (thanks to Katia for introducing me to his work). Illustrations of what you are meant to think the characters look like would be terrible dictatorial things, and quite wrong, but the evocative photos Sebald uses is embedded into the text, enriching it.
Apart from this we’ve become a lot more sniffy about book illustrations than in the past. Once the transition has taken place, we seem to get stuck in the ten-year-old mentality that pictures are for younger siblings who can’t read proper books. I think it’s a shame; I keep almost buying the facsimile edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience which includes his original illustrations; it looks like treasure.
Medieval books – illustrated Bibles and Korans – are always a treat to look at. Not every book would suit illustrations, but many more would than we have now, and it would bring back more of the wonder of reading, that particular quality of concentration that seems easy for children but impossible for adults to achieve.