Words or Pictures? or …?

Fragezeichen / BeratungThis post was inspired by a movie I watched recently, Words and Pictures. I need to emphasize that it’s not a kids’ movie, although for anyone over about 16, I highly recommend it.

The movie is set in a high school. The basic storyline centers around the art teacher and the English teacher, who disagree about which is more important, words or pictures. Their classes get involved in defending the two sides, leading to culminating scenes in which each side tries to prove that one or the other is better.

I don’t want to divulge the ending of the movie, but the competition does pose some interesting questions for those of us who support the arts and writing.

Is one or the other intrinsically better? Is one or the other a superior way to express feelings, thoughts, or ideas? Words or pictures? Can we choose? Should we choose?

In an example that is very different from the ones used by the students and teachers in the movie, let’s look at picture books. Generally, picture books are thought of as having both words and pictures. That is the default setting, as it were, of the genre.

But there are marvelous picture books that have no words, are there not? Think of Flotsam by David Wiesner or Free Fall by the same immensely talented man. Look at Journey by Aaron Becker. All tell their story by means of illustrations only – no text. It is fascinating to pore over these illustrations. But – how does one share the experience with another? How do you “read” such a book to a child? One way or another, you’re going to have to use words.

A book that has received a lot of attention recently is The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak. Instead of pictures, it is all text, but it is text that leaps and dances all over the page in many colors, fonts, and sizes (hmmm… almost as if the words themselves were the pictures), the chief aim being to get the reader to make all sorts of wild and hilarious sounds. Would it be as funny if all the text were in plain black and white?

We can go to an art gallery and steep ourselves in the art, but when we try to share that experience with someone else, we need words.

We can read books without pictures, but the words of those books create visual worlds in our minds.

Words? Or pictures?

You’ve likely gathered that I come down firmly on the side of…both. I believe words and pictures, though each can be savored separately, enhance each other and make each other more than they were apart.

What about you? Words? Or pictures? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. I think of it as the Ying-Yang (however it’s spelled) symbol – both are equally important; light and dark, words and pictures. I believe they must exist with each other, even if one greatly outnumbers the other, at the moment. The day (light) has the Sun, but there are still shadows, while the night (dark) itself is black, but there is still the Moon and Stars.

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