The other faces of literacy

I remember the exact moment when I learned to read. It was in Mrs. Richardson’s grade 1 class and yes, the book was Dick and Jane. The penny dropped and my brain made the connection between the marks on the page, the phonetics of the letters combining to make a word, and the meaning of the words strung together in sentences. It was like being given the key to a secret garden.

I also remember being in awe of an older girl who could make marks on a page that looked like writing. That tells me that the visual pattern of writing was already imprinted on me before I could make sense of it. After all, letters in any language are really just marks on a page. Like drawing.

Even though I consider myself fairly literate, I finally accepted that I learn best through pictures and no longer apologize for it. Pictures can pack a punch in the world of information, at least 1000 words worth, as they say. I confess I lack the patience to read the instructions. Give me an illustrated diagram any day. I can match it up to the map in my head and voilà! VCR programmed, IKEA bookshelf assembled, news item assimilated.

So it’s no wonder that as a kid, while I should have been doing homework, I would find myself on the floor poring over art books. I’d argue that I probably learned more there than I would have reading my textbooks. The Picture History of Painting taught me so much more than art history – it taught me about early man through gesture in cave paintings, about the narrative architecture of emotion in Giotto, about the connection between mysticism and engineering in da Vinci, about the fine line between medieval religious belief and madness in Hieronymus Bosch, about black humour, horror and the injustice of war in Goya, about the triumph of light, colour, abstraction and the delights (or dangers) of absinthe in the Impressionists, about the power of integrating text and graphics to drive political art in Ben Shahn. And it connected dozens of schools of thought through the common language of image.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore books and reading. The library is my happy place and I’ve been known to hyperventilate in a bookstore. But I often wonder if something isn’t lost in translation when we become literate.

When I see a tree, on some level the word “tree” flashes before my eyes. And the sound of the word echoes somewhere in my brain. The ability to directly experience a tree was sadly obliterated the minute Dick and Jane came into my life. I’ve often thought that this is what it meant to be thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

At the same time there is nothing like a well-designed book. A book is so much more than its content – it is an experience, an emblem, sometimes a treasure. The weight of it, the typeface, the colour and texture of the paper, the scale, whether it is illustrated or not, combine to create an object that is not just the sum of its parts. E-readers may never capture the multi-faceted aesthetic pleasures of reading a book.

The technological era has made it possible for sociologist David Carson to turn the written word on its ear and effectively jam it up with images when he wrote The End of Print.

The addictive success of Pinterest is another case in point. A well curated collection of images is highly educational and associative on many levels –  I notice a lot of teachers use it as a way of collecting resources for their students and of course business has banked on its easy ability to create an emotional environment through imagery and then associate it with a brand.

Last year I learned as much as reading any book when I visited Trent Film Society‘s installation of Things That Quicken the Heart: Cinema and (Non-) Narrativity (In Memory of Chris Marker) at Artspace. Five non-narrative films played simultaneously throughout the gallery, from Auguste and Louis Lumière’s First Films, 1895-1900 to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, 1983 filling the space with history and feeling.

Literacy today is not static – it’s reading or writing a text, tweet or blog post; reading between the lines of television advertising or a billboard; deciphering a street poster; it’s mathematics and html;  it’s experiencing film, dance and oral storytelling as well as literature. I believe there is a literary evolution taking place and image is becoming a more integral part of our language.

I am immensely grateful that I have all these systems of knowledge available to me; that I learned to read without having to fight for the privilege like Malala Yousafzai; that I have access to both real and virtual libraries in any language I choose. Still, at the same time, whenever I look at a tree, I am also a little bit sad.


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