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The Book Was Better, or Why a Picture Isn’t Always Worth a Thousand Words

It all started with a miscommunication.

Last week, I was sitting in the car, listening as two family members tried to figure out why they were confused.

I’ve forgotten the specifics, but it all depended on a missing bit of information, and once it was finally fit into place, I mentioned that I wished I had recorded the exchange, since it was a great example of how we use repair in a conversation. I mentioned that ways of repairing miscommunications exist in all languages, since two independent minds will often run into trouble when trying to make themselves understood. And this got me thinking about the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

How many times have you read a book, heard that a movie version was being made, anxiously waited to see it, and ultimately been disappointed that the film didn’t meet your expectations? If my own experiences and those of my friends are any indication, this happens a LOT. And I think part of the reason has to do with a miscommunication of ideas, and how we interpret words versus pictures.

When I look at pictures, whether they’re paintings or photos or film, I’m seeing another person’s interpretation and presentation of an idea. Of course, I’m still taking it in and comprehending what I’m seeing based on my own experiences, but it’s someone else’s vision, someone else’s interpretation of what a magic school, or a sunset, or “blue” looks like.

But when I read words, I get to decide how I want to interpret what I’m reading. Although I’m still presented with another person’s description of an idea, how I chose to visualize it is up to me. And chances are, my visualization will be tied to some real life experience, and therefore will be more meaningful.

Here’s an example:

One of my favorite books is The Time Traveler’s Wife. Part of the reason why is because it’s set in Chicago, and when places are described, I can remember rather than imagine them. But for settings like the apartments where the main characters live, I always picture actual apartments that I’ve lived in or visited, regardless of how they’re described by the author. And in doing this, I invest a part of myself.

If viewing a piece of visual art is like a lecture, then reading is like a conversation.

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