As you know (because I mention it all the time), something I’ve been really looking forward to is discussing our Book Club books more than once. And don’t think you’re off the hook because you quit reading—I fully expect you to pick this book up again someday. But now that we’re starting a few novels that will take longer to finish, I’m excited to talk about our books as we’re reading, not just when we’re finished and it’s time to post. Or when we give up. I think it’s pretty typical to take a certain position when you finish something—even if it’s as simple as “like it” or “loathe it”—and part of what makes me so excited about midway-posts is that it will be challenging and delightful to discuss the process of reading the books and to watch as our opinions shift and develop.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to talk about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before I’ve really even started the book. As you might expect, I already have a lot to say.
I’ve been interested in reading Connecticut Yankee ever since I dropped a class in which it was read and watched all my friends laughing their heads off and absolutely loving it (Ryan’s comment on your post indicates this nicely). I was insanely jealous—not in the least because they were all reading these Beautiful, Authoritative, Mark Twain Library editions that matched my Beautiful, Authoritative, Mark Twain Library edition of Huck Finn.
Though I became briefly obsessed with buying said Mark Twain Library edition when we decided to read it for Book Club, the reissued (read: non-matching) cover and non-negligible price tag sent me to the public library, where I checked out a version illustrated by Caldecott medalist Trina Schart Hyman.
As you can see from the covers, the two editions seem to offer very different approaches to Twain’s story. Tagged with words like Definitive, Authoritative, and Original Manuscript, the MTL edition is very much offering a scholarly, critical approach, whereas Hyman’s storybook illustrations make the book far less intimidating. As you noted, however, Twain’s original manuscript is also illustrated, by a man named Dan Beard, and to exercise my Visual Rhetoric skillz (Visual Rhetoric, by the way, was the class I took instead of the one with Mark Twain), I thought I’d compare the two versions.
To my mind the illustrations are better than the book–which is a good deal for me to say, I reckon.
–Mark Twain on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
As you can see, these illustrations (Hyman above, Beard below) depict a very similar scene: a knight rides off toward Camelot, a castle high on a distant hill. But there’s a small distinction that I thought became more and more pronounced as I compared the two versions.
By incorporating the first letter of “Camelot” into the picture, the original illustration becomes necessary to understanding the text. It’s a subtle move, but Beard’s image distances itself from pure decoration because we must “read” the image in order to understand the words. In contrast (and you can also see this in some of the following pictures), Hyman’s illustrations are confined to the same size and placement in every chapter, essentially a decorative border.
When she provides additional illustrations (such as this beautiful watercolor), they are set off alone on a single page, whereas Beard’s interrupts, bisects, and twines around Twain’s story.
I don’t really want to offer an argument about the superiority or appropriateness of the different illustrators; I know I tend to err on the side of the traditionalist (Twilight Inspired Covers Rant, anyone?), but I also think they serve different purposes and very different audiences. Whether this is a good thing is, I think, a discussion for another time. And I don’t say that because I have a definite opinion and I’m trying to be coy—I really do think there are a lot of sides to the issue and I’m not sure which one I’m on yet.
But back to Beard and Hyman. At the risk of overanalyzing, I would suggest they’re offering different arguments on the nature of illustrated text. Beard’s illustrations cannot be ignored—they interrupt and demand to be read—if only by containing some of the text within them. Hyman’s act more as a supplement: safely confined to definitive borders, they can be observed or ignored at will.
Whatever approach you prefer (and perhaps you should try a version like Hyman’s, the different style of art and formatting might feel less “assigned”), I think they offer pretty different reading experiences. I have actually put a MTL edition on hold, now, because I was curious about my own reaction to the different artists.
This post is getting quite long now, but I also wanted to draw attention to the matter of interpretation. As these two Merlins demonstrate, the depiction of certain characters can certainly influence your perception of them. Beard’s take is on the top with Hyman’s below, and I think there’s a significant difference in the realism and power each one seems to command.
Finally: a quote. As Mark Twain wrote to his publisher, “Tell Beard to obey his own inspiration, & when he sees a picture in his mind, put that picture on paper, be it humorous or be it serious. I want his genius to be wholly unhampered, I shan’t have any fear as to the result.”
Whether or not this sets aside the issue of literary merit, I think it’s lovely.
To appropriate another quote from Mark Twain: sorry this post is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.
P.S. I have so many books languishing around that I’ve convinced myself I’m still reading because I don’t want to admit to giving up on them. I wonder if you feel like you’re “quitting” books more than you used to because we now have to account for them. Before book club, you could set something aside and it was never a huge deal, but now you have to think of reasons and excuses and even Make A Final Decision about continuing on or quitting entirely.
P.P.S. Apparently, my closing quote is also attributed to Marie Curie, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Voltaire, and other clever people. Nobody, in a quick google search, seems to know the correct origins.