Do you have a favorite illustrated book?

This past week I was reading a novel in which two correspondents discuss illustrations in books. In the Victorian era, a good many novels came with black-and-white “steel engravings” and these certain add a visual component, and considerable period flavor, to the narrative. Thackeray illustrated, often quite charmingly, his own Vanity Fair; “Phiz” (Hablot K. Browne) famously gave faces to Dickens’s characters, and what would Alice’s adventures in Wonderland be like without the pictures by John Tenniel? My edition of The Lost World--taught earlier this spring--includes old photographs supposed to represent the monster-inhabited plateau. Certainly one of the attractions of Folio, Heritage and Limited Editions Club books lies in their abundant use of art to enhance the text. But is this right? Some readers feel that any representation of a character or a scene somehow limits our response to it, or inhibits our imagination. I tend to feel that most readers are stronger-minded than this, and simply enjoy the illustration as a supplemental pleasure. That said, it’s hard for me not to see the characters of, say, Winnie-the-Pooh except as Ernest H. Shepard drew them. I know, too, that I love picture books for the interplay between art and word, but then these albums are carefully orchestrated to achieve that synergy. Some old Photoplay editions--illustrated with movie stills--add a further twist to this question: Is the book selling the movie or is the movie selling the book? Take the illustrated novel far enough, of course, and you end up with Classics Comics and graphic novels. Do other members of the Reading Room have views, so to speak, about the use of images to complement stories and poems? Do you have favorite illustrated books or book artists? What makes them special? Please share your thoughts.

- Michael Dirda

Read what others are saying