Dead or Dying: Are the Great Books still Relevant as a Medium?

The unfortunate answer to this question appears to be yes, but not for cynical reasons. If one is considering the general medium of the Great Books a hardback or paperback book filled with words, then yes, the medium is certainly dated, and not necessarily because “people” are losing their imaginations and intellects. In the following essay, we will consider the artistic and intellectual options one has besides books now, and whether in this age of digital supremacy, the simplicity of a book, and its abstract expressions, still have a place in our education and entertainment.

We begin with the example of the graphic art medium, comics: one now has the opportunity not only to include a specific image with the text, and to order those images in sequence with the artist’s intent, but the artist may also offer the focal points of each image to more clearly direct the thought of his reader/viewer. What this gives up in descriptive depth from reading pages on end, is covered by the fact that the reader gets “the summary” or the definite perspective of the writer and artist. This is another unique aspect of the comic: one has at least two minds representing the world one encounters–the illustrator and the writer–two imaginations blended as one, and there are some very innovative uses of this technique now being experimented with. But that said, is there not a closing off of perspectives in being shown one perspective and his or her desire to show his or her respective at all?

Let us examine the question like this: if a comic-book artist is capable of presenting a situation with full imaginative detail, does not the comic book artist close off the creative process of a reader to “add” his own take to the situation? Beyond this, is not part of the purpose of reading a work testing and expanding one’s imagination not only by envisioning what a writer intends, but also in adding or subtracting in accordance with one’s own personal predilection? Perhaps that is just an error of the reader and the comic-book artist corrects the imaginative attempts of the reader.

Let us now imagine a situation, then, for a moment, and how a comic book might represent it as opposed to a book. The situation is that a mother has just discovered that her child who has been very sick has died. In the graphic novel, perhaps an entire page is dedicated to the look on her face, and panel by panel, it zooms in, effectively showing the stunned since of loss, but more, of the emptiness and shock the mother feels–precisely because the news has hit her so hard that she is incapable of even feeling. Now compare what you imagined to an image of a sorrowful or shocked mother–perhaps this one. Was not your imagination just as vivid? Let us move on from such macabre examples.

It is also argued, particularly the example above, that use of “graphic arts” is more long-standing and has “deeper roots” than use of pure-written language. And though this argument makes a claim to more “natural” language, by its own reasoning, it also suggests that “graphic arts” are more primitive and less sophisticated than purely written arts. All that said, this is not an argument against hybrid-forms, nor against graphic arts as expressive, imaginative, and extraordinary media. The point is that graphic arts can adequately express thoughts and feelings, but that they are not capable of completely supplanting the purpose and value of less visually stimulating texts. Also, if one accepts the maxim “the visual provides expression where words fail” from the dissertation comic above, one may be tempted to ask whether that is the fault of the words or the writer using them.

The next style of new-age reading is from a book, or more commonly, some text (like a website or blog) with some alteration made to the performance of reading it. Either, one is electronically reading from a website with different colors, perhaps music playing, static images following one’s cursor, as well as images wedged between pictures–possibly even videos. Imagine this. There are pictures alongside, in-between, and continuing the narrative of the writing structure there. There are ads, links, and “calls to action” set to bright colors and warm-images. Breathe. One receives from such sites or blogs, again, a very strong view of the perspective of the author of the blog/site, though the intention of the site itself can sometimes be difficult to decipher. One perceives not only the author/artist’s capacity for writing, but his or her creative flair for design and pedagogy as well.

The difficulty one runs into is that instead of focusing on depth of thought, one might devote more time to one’s presentation and the audio-visual sensibilities of one’s audience. For example, though editing writing is difficult enough, imagine that the artist-writer hybrid now too must match the colors of his or her fonts with his or her backgrounds, flow of his or her images, and the linking of his or her videos. This is not to suggest that time or effort are the only factors limiting these media, so much as that they are complicated and that with images, videos, and colors added, it is very much possible that a strong presentation will supplant a strong argument instead. Though, of course, this need not be the case.

The third style, which is largely being supplanted by the second style, is the cinema method, but by this I do not mean full-length feature films (though, they are included), but rather I mean all matter of video-files, on youtube, facebook, and vine as well. What these methods allow for is instant communication via transmission of a life-like visage of yourself or something else, and in so providing this, they provide ease of access in an unprecedented fashion. One not only receives the direct thinking and expressions of the person one observes, one sees so much more about the author: his looks, his mannerisms, how he engages with the camera or another person. One gets a far more complete perception of the artist or thinker himself, and generally, such a vivid and exciting medium is capable of conveying a large amount of data and dialog within a rather focuses and short period of time. Does this, however, convey his or her thought more effectively, or does it simply give one more ancillary material on which to chew? It is true, that like with the comic-book, one (imagine a late-night host) may use graphics, sub-titles, and other large and colorful effects to express one’s meaning in front of the camera. But the question remains firm: do more images, sounds, and content detract from the thought while adding to the thematic value of the medium? The answer remains uncertain.

Although the book as a medium has a stalwart (and practical) place in a Great Books education or any education at large, it is still unclear whether more artistically expressive media like videos and image-filled sites are better media per se or simply offer more possible methods of expressing one’s self. If one thinks that “more is better” in terms of choices for presenting one’s self, the choice is clear, and the book is dead as a medium. But if one thinks deeper, and one considers that words composed of letters and ordered in brief semiotic units exist as abstract representations of images, thoughts, and feelings, and that one reading (especially verse) must translate, and make meaning, from these odd and unnatural representations, is this difficult and somewhat artificial process more or less likely to warrant and produce the best abstract and rational thinking than an image based method of communication?