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A Visual Act

July 28, 2003

Reading is a visual act, of course, and yet we instinctively know it is something more, as well. You’ve heard it said: “I’m a visual learner,” which could mean many things, but it does not mean learning by reading words.

“Visual” in this context often means “direct visual experience of the world.”

I could describe for you Saturday evening’s thunderstorm with it’s remarkable display of lightning — hundreds of streaks of lightning scribbling across the sky — but it would scarcely do the storm justice unless you had seen lightning before.

I oohed and aahed, watched the lightning come closer, counted flashes per minute. My wife said, “We should draw some water.” Good idea. Fortunately, our lights flickered just once.

Likewise, I could describe the ripping, cracking rumble of thunder that started somewhere over Methodist Mountain and traveled through the clouds to end somewhere in front of Shavano. Except that “like thunder” is how you describe other things.

Can the blind who have never seen before “picture” something? Can they build a mental “image” of lightning? Most certainly, they would have an aural “picture” of the thunder, and likely a much richer one than you or I. I find it a fascinating thought.

I’m reading a book called “Our own devices: the past and future of body technology,” and it seems like exactly the book that would be heavily illustrated. And yet it’s not. This is not to criticize the book, because frankly it may not need more than the few illustrations it has. The author is very good at explaining and describing the physical things he’s talking about.

The author, Edward Tenner, discusses the history and technology of feeding babies; of footwear from the simplest sandal called a zori (a flip-flop) to the modern athletic shoe; chairs, music and text keyboards, eyeglasses, and helmets.

Even though I wish the book were illustrated in the style of the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Books, which are carefully illustrated and annotated, I must accept that images would give only part of the story.

However, images can impart information and bring understanding in ways that words can not. It’s hard to understand the capriciousness of lightning — that it would hit a stack of hay instead of a taller tree nearby — without actually seeing how lightning is.

“Illustration” has come to mean an example that clarifies or explains, as well as a visual depiction, which itself is intermediate between text and direct experience of the thing depicted. Whew.

Another intermediate form would include graphs, maps, charts. Here is visual representation with no claim to realistic depiction. Two beautiful new books at the library deal exactly with this. Both are by Edward Tufte: “The visual display of quantitative information” and “Envisioning information.”

Discussion of the books seems absurd, since the books are so direct themselves. I’ll leave you to look at them. But I’ll note two other new books that rely heavily on the non-textual transmission of information.

“Ground water atlas of colorado,” a new publication from the Colorado Geological Survey, is full of the kind of visual display discussed by Edward Tufte. The library keeps one copy in the Reference Room and one for check-out.

The other is “Golf forever.” That’s right. It focuses on golf injuries and other ailments that get in the way, but in doing so, it manages to touch on many common aches and pains. The many illustrations include a few rather medical pictures. Fair warning if you read it over breakfast.

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