A while back, I had the pleasure of attending Claudia Rankine’s lecture at Hampshire College. Rankine read several passages from her book, Citizen: an American Lyric, providing personal background on the images and experiences that inspired her to write this book. Citizen explores themes of race and discrimination in the 21st century. It takes themes and issues that are usually discussed in a historical context and brings them into the modern era. It is this aspect of Citizen, I think, which accounts for why it has struck such a chord with so many readers.
One of the most fascinating things about Citizen is its use of the visual. Every section of the text is accompanied by an image, almost as if to say that for every idea expressed, there is a corresponding visual. For me, these images are a crucial part of what makes Citizen such an effective piece of literature. Going in to see Rankine herself, I was thus curious to see how she would get around the problem of having to read parts of her book without the visual accompaniment.
During the lecture, Rankine had a projector set up, where she displayed the images corresponding to the section of text that she was reading at the time. Before reading, she would always preface the passage with a brief anecdote about the image that was displayed. Personally, having this background information told to me helped me gain a deeper understanding of the images and the passages of the text that accompanied them. Whereas before, the images were a bit of an enigma to me, now I knew the history behind them, which seemed to reveal a whole new dimension of the book to me. Traditionally, I wouldn’t have thought that I would have wanted to have the mystery behind these photos revealed to me. Yet strangely, the fact that I had already read the book before while ignorant of the inspiration behind the photos, I found that this new reading of the text was an interesting companion to my previous reading, rather than serving to erase it.
Listening to Rankine read, I became aware of a serious flaw in illustrated texts: due to the limits of visual perception, we can only look at one thing at a time. We, the readers, have to choose what to pay attention to at any given time. The result is a disparity between text and image, and we experience each separately. Having the text read to me, however, freed up my eyes to look at the image. I could now experience both at once, which somehow felt more authentic. I now got the sense that the pictures truly accompanied the text, making me feel as though they were truly part of the same work of art.
This raised a great deal of questions for me in regards to how I approach books that have a visual component. I had never much thought of how limited our ability to process visual stimuli is. Incorporating auditory elements to the text, however, allows us to circumvent the shortcomings of the gaze, and experience multiple components of the book at once. I would now be curious, for instance, to see what the effect would be of listening to the audio version of Alice in Wonderland while looking at the illustrations the whole time. How would this change our perception of the book? I usually prefer to read a novel on my own, but the exposure to illustrated texts that I have received in this class, as well as my experience with Claudia Rankine’s reading, has opened my eyes to a great many possibilities when it comes to the various ways in which a book can be read.