Wordless Books*

When it comes to reading, I’m a literalist.

Reading is done by a reader who decodes a sequence of written symbols – a condition notably absent in other narrative media such as audiobooks or film.

So what’s a literalist to do when confronted by a book without words? Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is an essentially wordless piece of narrative sequential art that I found both vibrant and moving. I got to hear Tan explain his work at a slideshow presentation during the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival in 2008. What follows are my notes on his talk, mixed with my own impressions after “reading” his book.

For someone who tells a story without using words, Tan is wonderfully articulate about his artistic vision and the techniques he uses to achieve it. The Arrival, he says, is informed by historic photography, the photo album, silent film, the graphic novel, and a sort of sea-world surrealism. His art is grounded in images from real life which he then adapts to make slightly strange in order to challenge our assumptions and cause us to slow down and look more deeply. The Arrival is largely about the immigrant experience, and it addresses such issues as identity, political oppression, displacement, community, and miscommunication. At times, Tan uses fantastic visual metaphors to communicate these themes, such as a tadpole-inspired creature to signify metamorphosis or ambivalence regarding community and environment. He says images can express things that are hard to articulate or that touch preliterate emotions; for example, children often cannot say what it is that’s bothering them, but they can illustrate it in a drawing. He said he tries to present the book as a world itself – not just a representation of the world as we know it.

Tan noted that his book does have words – in his own invented alphabet – and the importance of being able to read comes up more than once in his story. But even without his linguistic symbols, this literalist would urge you to take a look at his remarkable book.

On a related note, Seattle’s The Stranger has awarded Jim Woodring its 2010 Genius Award in Literature for his book Weathercraft, noting that it is the first wordless book to win the award. I’m just now introducing myself to Woodring’s extraordinary artwork through a companion volume, The Frank Book.

Woodring’s often freakish and disturbing dreamscapes present a fantastic world with Moorish-style architecture and a variety of characters drawn in distinctly different ways. Frank, who looks somewhat like a Mickey Mouse woodchuck, bumbles aimlessly about his unpredictable world, sometimes in the company of the toaster-like Pupshaw and Pushpaw (who share a certain affinity with Shaun Tan’s tadpole-like creation mentioned above). Other characters include geometric chickens, Manhog, and floating oddities that resemble elasticized venetian glass bottle stoppers. These wordless stories include down-the-rabbit-hole escapades, out-of-thin-air manifestations, strange metamorphoses, and the consumption and expulsion of various life forms.

Ultimately, it’s a world too weird for words – you just have to see it for yourself.

UPDATE: November 5, 2010

I failed to mention the amazing woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. A 1966 reprint of his 1929 book Gods’ Man has been in the library collection for decades, and we just recently purchased the brand new two-volume Library of America set that contains all six of Ward’s woodcut stories. Gods’ Man was released the same week as the 1929 stock market crash and it is the first of six woodcut novels he was to release up until the beginning of World War II. You owe yourself a look at these.

*almost wordless


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