This week, Scribbly Roo, our resident illustrator and design guru, and I have teamed up to bring you a curious list. We’ve been thinking about the lucky kinds of books that are bestowed with illustrations, and how vital those pictures often become, often so connected to the texts themselves in readers’ imaginations. Think of the famous illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland or the definitive scratchy sketches that first brought Ted Hughes’ Crow to life.
But there are many books that have always remained text-only, tantalizingly imageless. Now we think about it, there are so many possibilities that illustration could bring to our beloved classics, literary fiction that’s stuck to the page with the importance of its subject matter or gravity of its language, genres that have never traditionally been graced with pictures, like crime or history but could be so enlivened by an extra visual dimension.
Even as the future of print publishing changes and warps so that we can’t quite predict it, the market’s demand for beautifully bound books seems to be on the rise. Imprints are forming within well known publishers to publish special, extra aesthetically pleasing volumes, gift editions, limited editions, fancy papers and recycled covers, intricate bindings and illustrations – readers more than ever want to invest in a physical object to own, as the very idea of owning books is sort of slipping out of our hands.
So here are my picks, books I think deserve a good bit of illustration and why:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I think The Goldfinch would make a fascinating illustrated book because its effect depends on its ability to surround the reader in a complex, realistic world, and the reader’s ability to attach and relate to the central characters – to illustrate this epic tale would be ambitious but would certainly offer us another level of engagement with the story and make its settings even richer.
The Goldfinch was a blockbuster hit last year, despite its door stopper size and intimidating scope. With its publication, the author, the enigmatic, one-book-every-ten-years author Donna Tartt, became even more of a household name, and introduced herself charismatically to another generation. The book itself also has a charismatic, enigmatic presence. With a hearty dose of traditional style in its epic, bildungsroman structure, plus a contemporary confidence in breaking the mold of what a modern novel “should” be, plus a nostalgic sensibility too, its settings and characters bringing a Victorian, antique air to contemporary New York, The Goldfinch’s illustrations could bring the whole novel together in a cool way.
As a glad literary descendent of Dickens, Donna Tartt’s work shares a decorative, flourishing quality in its long elegant sentences and, like many of Dickens’ stories, seems a perfect home for charicatures and adornments.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Miranda July’s first novel takes elements and inspiration from her work in other media, her visual art, her installations, videos, interviews, all of July’s aliases seem to combine in her written voice so that you can almost hear it aloud, almost view it on the page as a painting or a sculpture rather than just text in a paperback. I’d love to see how July would populate the world of The First Bad Man with pictures.
Illustrations of July’s characters could be so whimsical and beautiful. The obsessive rituals of protagonist Cheryl Glickman’s life could wallpaper their way through the novel in a sort of visual tirade, adding to the oppressive but deeply comic effect the prose already has on the reader.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Station Eleven made waves in the literary fiction world recently by bringing a new kind of dystopia into readers’ hands, pushing the genre out of the box of the YA label and into the open ground of “literary fiction,” and “contemporary fiction.” The world of the story, from recognisable New York to a new barren land where new-sprung civilisations haunt old relics and ruins of a destroyed environment, is so ripe for illustration.
The novel made me think a lot, but if there’s one thing that niggled me about it throughout it was a lack of visual clarity, which seemed to run contrary to the main character’s love of comic strips and sketching. The landscapes and textures of the book are often sweeping and vague. Kirsten’s secret world is made of these sketches, and they’re so vital to the surface of the prose that I kept wondering why there wasn’t more of a visual element to the volume itself, perhaps the whole thing could be presented in the form of a sketchbook or artifact.
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
The Making of Americans was written by Gertrude Stein over a long period, between 1903 and 1911 reportedly, but wasn’t published in full until 1925, in a special limited edition batch. In fact the birth of this novel sounds much like an etching or a print; “the original” has such a mystique to it and even though the themes of the book are so big and universal, it also seems to resist mass production. Like many other works of modernism at the time, The Making of Americans was pushed and coaxed into being by a network of friends rather than a single publisher – it took a village to raise it, and so perhaps it has managed to retain that special handcraftedness that lends it to pictures.
The prose has Stein’s tell-tale repetition and abstraction but over the length of the novel there is a sense of development, of a collage of layers, generation laid over generation as detail begets detail, creating a dense texture that goes far beyond the abstract, into personal history. Stein’s strange mastery of the specific and the abstract together is wonderful food for illustration, I think. What would an artist make of these blank, full lines? What images could come to represent “The Americans,” these two quintessential families that are bound tenuously together by marriage?
Scribbly Roo will be carrying on the list shortly with her top books she’d love to see illustrated and why. Till then, tell us what books you’d love to see illustrated! Or if you’ve illustrated your own books, we’d love to hear about the process, too. Join the conversation on Twitter, below or on our Forums page.