Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Biblia Pauperum, the “Bible of the Poor”, printed in the lower Rhine region or Low countries, c1460. An example of whole-page illustration, where the image, a woodcut, replaces the text entirely. Within a few years, integrated text and illustrations were appearing in printed books.

I recently published a post entitled, provocatively, The Failure of the Book. The argument was that in some ways, and for certain subjects, books were no more adapted to reader requirements in the 20th century than in the 15th century. Specifically, this applied to non-fiction books with an academic slant.

As if to confirm my claim, a former editor at Verso commented on the post and in so doing, I think, confirmed my point. He stated that the book in question, The Coming of the Book, a famous work about the first three hundred years of printing and publishing, could only be translated by the publisher in a cost-effective way by removing the illustrations. I didn’t realise, until I checked the original French edition, that there had been any illustrations in the original French edition; one of them is shown above. There can only have been a handful of images in the original edition, but nonetheless, to lose those few was very revealing. I get the impression that the academic reputation of the authors in some way compensated for the lack of intelligibility of the contents once the images had been removed.

Interestingly, the book itself (by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin) contains a revelation of the prejudice against illustration by intellectuals during the early years of printed books:

Certainly, the first humanists, especially those of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, scholars before all else, showed as much disdain for illustrated books as the theologians of the Sorbonne. Wasn’t an illustration merely a simple way to instruct those who were too ignorant to read the rest? [Coming of the Book, Verso edition 1976, ch3, p98]

The authors continue to describe the success of early children’s books in illustrated formats, such as Aesop’s Fables – but I don’t think it invalidates my argument. It was (and still is) a common ploy to reduce or to remove illustrations altogether for cheaper editions. Worse, many publishers fail to revise the remaining text to remove the references to now non-existent figures. This seems to me to indicate the continuing dominance of text over illustration; illustrations are nice to have, but not essential. This snobbishness from the 15th century still persists in some quarters today. It is as if the publisher is assuming that reviewers (that is, the readers who matter) will read the hardback, while the paperback version readers can be ignored. If they find errors or unintelligibility in the text that’s not such a problem.

Quite separately, of course, is that large category of books which do contain illustrations, yet these frequently appear to have little relation to the text that accompanies them. I have commented on various examples in earlier posts, for example, a book entitled Feeding Britain.

Full disclosure: I worked at the publisher Dorling Kindersley (while they were independent) during the early years of my publishing career, and I can say I have never since encountered any publisher able to integrate text with relevant illustrations so skilfully. Successful examples included cookery books, how-to manuals, guides to the animal and plant world, and so on. At the same time, there was a handful of illustrated editions of classic texts, with more academic credibility, that received the accolade of an illustrated edition: Oliver Rackham’s The Illustrated History of the Countryside, 2003, was a gloriously visual version of the same author’s History of the Countryside, 1986. But for every such triumph of visual publishing, there remains the mass of titles that are still published for the advancement of the authors more than for the education and delight of the reader.

Of course, there are illustrated books where many of the images are simply there for decoration rather than to impart information – the Gallimard travel guides are an example. But that doesn’t detract from the fundamental principle. Some serious non-fiction books need illustrations, and those illustrations all too frequently don’t get the attention they deserve. We remain locked in a text-based culture, 500 years after printing, and with it, the possibility of incorporating illustrations with the text, was invented.