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An Innovation Even Bigger Than eBooks

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This month, the Library of America will publish a stunning box set containing six of Lynd Ward's wordless "novels-in-woodcut." Over 1,600 pages thick and packaged in a deep red, the box set feels and looks like a brick -- a desperate effort, perhaps, to reassert the durability of the printed page in the era of the eBook. Anachronistic as it is, however, Ward's box set can actually serve as a useful example of how authors should innovate into the future.

Award-wining comics artist Art Spiegelman writes in the introduction to the edition: "Lynd Ward made books. He had an abiding reverence for the book as an object. He understood its anatomy, respected every aspect of its production, intimately knew its history, and loved its potential to engage an audience. This is one of the reasons he commands our attention now, when the book as an object seems under siege."

"Under siege," indeed, especially as eBooks begin to outsell hardcover books and authors and publishers vow to stop printing on paper.

So, with this in mind, how exactly can a printed book teach authors to evolve?

Widely recognized as the "founder of the graphic novel," Ward introduced the form to America with his 1929 novel "Gods' Man," a narrative told entirely in pictures. Radical as a formal practice, the wordless novel was also a political art form in its ability to communicate a message through the universal language of pictures. Perhaps the form's most provocative aspect -- in regard to both storytelling and political innovation -- can be witnessed in its application to books for children.

Having illustrated books for children himself, including the Caldecott Medal winning "The Biggest Bear," Ward's influence on picture books has stretched widely. Some highlights of the genre include: David Wiesner's "Flotsam," Shaun Tan's "The Arrival," Jerry Pinkey's "The Lion and the Mouse," and Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." In terms of innovation, however, none seems to surpass Barbara Lehman's "Red Book," a book about, well, a book.

Lehman's "Red Book" follows a day in the life of a little girl who reads her own "red book" and discovers that inside her "red book" another child reads his own "red book" ... and so on. When a child reads Lehman's "The Red Book," she must perceive and interpret the images and then piece the pictures together to form a cohesive narrative. This process empowers the reader by requiring her to construct a storyline and by enabling her to interact with the book.

Put differently: a novel without words can elevate its reader to a level of authority equal to -- or beyond -- that of the author. One message of wordless books, then, is that the reader is simultaneously an author ... or, at the very least, an active participant who can think critically about, question and critique the story in front of her. As a result, when a child reads a wordless book, she inherently learns how to be a critic, not just a passive observer, of a text.

Books lacking this interactivity are not only boring, but can also be dangerous, especially in our digital age when messages and media spew at us from a million directions at a mile a minute.

Unfortunately, technological efforts to innovate have fallen short. Sure, there has been some creative progress with content for the iPad. Textbooks, for example, now feature 3D graphics and videos, and there's an App that makes picture books accessible to deaf and blind children. And companies such as Vook have also started to merge text and video into a cohesive unit.

Nevertheless, all these so-called interactive forms of media remain systems wherein one voice dictates a narrative. The author -- or editor or producer or programmer -- will impose not only a narrative, but a manufactured message, of his own sole design. As media proliferates in the digital age, we need ways to teach children how to decipher what they see, hear and read and ultimately separate the good from the bad, the legitimate from the phony, the right from the wrong.

Despite the technological marvels of various eReaders, none of them approach the level of invention or edification that the wordless book does. In the end, I wonder: Are eBooks changing the way we read stories, or are they merely changing the way we receive them?

I believe that wordless novels present a fresh and unique way to understand and interpret a narrative. That's why I urge authors, editors, programmers, etcetera, to go and read books like Ward's to gain new ideas of how to truly break ground.

"Two years after meeting Lynd Ward, when I was beginning to seriously explore the limits and possibilities of comics, I drew a four-page comics story about my mother's suicide," Spiegelman writes in the collection's introduction. The panels to which he refers were eventually included in the revolutionary comic book "Maus." Let's follow Spiegelman's example and look to Ward for how to create revolutionary content -- printed, digital or otherwise -- into the future.

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