When I first moved to NYC, in the mid-1970s, a neighbor pulled out a recently published edition of The American Heritage Dictionary and asked me what its one drawback was. I’ve always loved how the editors had designed that dictionary, and I could see nothing wrong with it: etymologies, definitions, usage guidance, breakdown of shades of meaning among synonyms (example: break, crack, fracture,rupture, burst, split, splinter, shatter, shiver, smash, and crush, all carefully delineated in a brief paragraph). So much information in one book. It seemed perfect to me.
My friend’s complaint? Not enough pictures. The margins of a page could hold as many of four photos or diagrams, but many have only one and too many have none at all.
I can’t look at a dictionary now without thinking of my erstwhile neighbor, and a non-fiction book with a stingy few illustrations makes me wonder why more weren’t included.
De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is one such book, and Witold Rybczynski’s Home is another. I’ll start with Rybczynski.
Home: A Short History of an Idea is a fascinating, delightful walk through ideas about comfort and the interior/exterior design of living spaces, from Europe in the early 1500s to the US in the late 1900s. Each chapter features one illustration of a drawing, photo, or advertisement.
Not enough! I realize I can find almost every one of Rybczynski’s sources on Google Books — the illustration I’ve included is from an early American book on home economics (remember those high school courses girls had to take in the 1950s and 1960s, while the guys were in shop?). But why didn’t Rybczynski include more like this one in his book? I hate having to put down my book so I can run to my computer to look at what the author’s talking about. (But I’m grateful that Rybczynski includes terrific references–this greatly eases the time spent online.)
The same applies to de Waal’s family memoir: give me more illustrations. I’m loving the book, although as the netsuke he’s following move to Vienna we have to leave Charles Swann/Ephrussi behind in Paris, and I was so enjoying all those overlaps.
Towards the end of the chapter on Charles, de Waal describes Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and says that the top-hatted man at the rear, with his back to us, is his great uncle Charles Ephrussi! Well, Edmund? Why didn’t you include a reproduction in your book? Why must I go through my art books hoping that one would have included it? (I was lucky and found one.)
Yes, yes, I know. Illustrations add to the expense of a book and better images than most books can produce are just a few clicks away on the web. And if I could be more satisfied with each author’s descriptions of these pictures, I’d be a happier reader all around. But my mind wants to “see”, and so I pause in my reading to look something up.
My only comment is that the authors should take it as a compliment that I care enough to take this extra step.
Next week, I return to Proust. It’s time to find out how Marcel is faring with Gilberte and her parents, the imperious Odette and Charles. But now, as I read, I’ll be able to see Charles Ephrussi (and imagine Louise Cahen D’Anvers, for I’ve been unable to find any online drawing or painting of her; the closest available is Titian’s Woman with a Mirror).
BTW: the Getty Museum blog has a post about de Waal’s memoir.