If you look

A medieval illuminated manuscript at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, July 2007

A medieval illuminated manuscript at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, July 2007

“If you look at an illuminated manuscript, even today, it just blows your mind.  For them, without all the clutter and inputs that we have, it must have been even more extraordinary.” Geraldine Brooks

I started reading aloud to our sons when they were babies, and kept it up nightly until they were in middle school.  Over the years I marveled at the multitude of gorgeous picture books that were available in full, vibrant colors.  When I was a child, picture books were fewer in number, and many of them had only two or three colors.  In fact, some of the Caldecott Medal winners such as Make Way for Ducklings were muted in appearance compared to the bright hues that decorated even the least expensive picture books our sons enjoyed.  I wondered if they had any idea how lucky they were, having hundreds of visually appealing titles available at any public library or bookstore.

Of course, our children could say something similar about the greater benefits available to young readers today, who have animated eBooks with motion, sound, and interactive features available at the click of a key.  For all the talk about reading being an endangered pastime, the various formats of literary offerings seem to become ever more plentiful, accessible and diverse. Imagine, then, how a medieval reader (or nonreader, as the vast majority were) would react to the literary wealth of our era.

But even centuries ago, there were picture books.  Before the printing press ushered in a renaissance that was as far-reaching as our digital revolution of today, books had to be copied by hand.  Countless monks and scribes literally gave their entire lives (and sometimes their eyesight) carefully duplicating texts that had slim chances of surviving the ravages of uncontrolled climate, hungry insects and pillaging or censoring conquerors.  It’s a bit amazing that any of these treasures survived.

Some did, though, and among the most amazing are the illuminated manuscripts, with elaborate border decorations and richly detailed illustrations.  The intricate patterns and calligraphy tell an unwritten story that goes beyond the diligently copied text, reminding us that books have been vital to humanity for as long as history has been recorded.  The countless hours spent preparing, recording and preserving the written word testify to the respect, even reverence, that books have always commanded from those who appreciate them.

It’s fun to wonder whether much of the deluge of writing now available online will live through as many centuries as the handwritten texts have survived.  Does the ease of writing (and deleting), the abundance of lovely photos and artwork so easily viewed on any computer, and the common expectation of widespread literacy, cause us to devalue one of the greatest blessings people have ever been granted?  Are we treating words and illustrations carelessly, flinging them about with the contempt that often accompanies any easily available, seemingly boundless resource?

Perhaps some of us are, at least now and then. But I’d like to think that a great many of us — particularly those who are reading and writing words right now, rather than passively taking in television re-runs — comprehend the surpassing importance and responsibility attached to literacy.  There’s a popular bumper sticker that says, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”  Perhaps there should be one that says, “If you can read this, BE a teacher — and a learner!”

Whatever you are doing today, you’ll be in contact with written words more often than you’re even aware of them.  I hope you’ll take a moment to be thankful for this gift of literacy, which binds us to people centuries removed from us. They’ve left us richly illustrated reminders that words can be, and often are, extraordinarily beautiful.

For a look at picture books of bygone days, see Elephant’s Picture Book, a fun and interesting blog!


  1. Paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, the written word allows us to communicate with the dead, as well as with those yet unborn.

    • Isn’t that so totally cool? It reminds me of something Ashleigh said: “Communication with the dead is only slightly more difficult than communication with some of the living.” Actually, I’d say it’s LESS difficult than with some people I know! 🙂 If you get my drift.

  2. Sheila

    Good Monday morning, Julia. I think reading to a child is a gift in itself, to both involved. I spoke to our 17 year old grandson, Hewitt, last week and was so excited to learn that he had driven to the public library for a library card and several books. I think reading often goes from childhood enjoyment to required reading and the pleasure sometimes changes. What a gift to be able to see and read and comprehend your beautiful blog everyday. I’ll keep the Denton family in my prayers this week!

    • Thanks so much, Sheila. It’s unfortunate that school does spoil reading for far too many kids. One of the best things a parent (or librarian or teacher) can do is to make sure that kids never forget how much fun reading can be. If J. K. Rowling did nothing else, she laid to rest the notion that kids would never read a long book, let alone an entire series of long books. I hope that Hewitt has a wonderful public library available. Our kids were blessed to have one of the best librarians I have ever known in charge of the base library at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. “Mr. B,” as he was affectionately known by all the library patrons, knew that the library belongs to its patrons, NOT to its staff. He was probably one of the biggest reasons I chose to go to library school, because I saw how big a difference a well-run library can make in a child’s life. The VAFB library was not grand – in fact it was rather shabby and low-tech – but it was full of wonderful books and media, and was a comfortable, welcoming place for everyone who went there. I hope that technology never replaces the cozy fun of prowling through books in a place that feels like a second home.

      • Sheila

        I read a short story this weekend about a little girl that was learning to read and in the process was so excited. Her parents challenged her to read various signs. While she was walking with her dad on a camping trip, he pointed out a sign and asked if she knew what was ahead. She studied it and replied, “It’s a Wildlife Enchantment Area” (instead of Enhancement). 🙂 Even now, when the family returns there, they laugh and recall that special moment. Let’s be enchanted today!

        • Sheila, I love this story! My little wooded lot is a wildlife enchantment area. I love the word “enchanted” and you may recall I wrote about it in this post. I will definitely try to pause for little islands of enchantment in an otherwise busy day today. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. I’m amazed too that any of these ancient books could have possibly survived. I wonder if their authors ever could have imagined someone in the 21st century viewing their artistry. Probably just as mind boggling as thinking someone in the 27th century reading our Blogs. Where will they even be? Maybe on another planet! “Stardate 2713, just discovered Defeat Despair in long lost Web format”….who knows?

    • Can’t you just hear the Vulcanites saying (in flat, monosyllabic tones) “These humans could never learn how impractical emotions are.” Mr. Spock (or his descendents, if he could have any?) would find our blogs quite bewildering. On the other hand, if the beings of the future are more histrionic than we, they might think we were absolutely cold. I’d love to time travel for a bit, forward or backward – let me know if you discover a time machine! Til then, books are the best substitute.

      • I let you know about the time travel thing, LOL, I think Sheldon on the Big Bang is on to something.

        • Is that a TV show? I’ll have to Google it and read about it. I’ve always wanted to write a time travel series for middle grades, but thus far it’s all only in my head, not on paper. A common delusion, I’m sure. 🙂

          • The Big Bang is a 1/2 hour Sitcom that has 4 friends, guys that are brainiacs. They get into all sorts of social calamities because they never fit in. Sheldon is an ego-maniac and the most fun. They have a very loyal fan base including Alys and I. It’s silly stuff but makes us laugh like mad.

            As for writing a book, I’m sure everyone starts with a good idea and with your writing skills, that’s probably the hardest part.

            • That sounds like my kind of show, maybe I’ll have to break my 28-year sabbatical and watch it sometime! I like silly. But when Jeff was in dental school, we used to watch Hill Street Blues and I loved that show.

              • Oh ya, Hill Street Blues…yep we watched that too. Great Television. OMGosh, if you watch Big Bang after no TV for 28 years, you better send them a FB message or something…that’d be news worth alerting them too.

                I can’t believe you don’t watch Downton Abbey !!!! It’s not starting again till Christmas. Alys sent me home with her collection so I can watch them again before the next season. We are totally hooked. English Family, well to do, run an estate. They have three daughters, all very different. The staff figure prominently in the stories too…it’s soooooooo good. Well except they killed off the cutest guy in the series in the last episode last year. Alys and I were very sad LOL.

                • I just told Jeff the other day that we should stream Downtown Abbey (or get the DVDs) because it does sound like something I would love. I will be sure to let Big Bang know if I start watching :-). I can’t stand commercials. If I can get DVDs or other commercial-free media I’m ok with it, provided it’s good. A friend sent me the entire first (and maybe only) season of Freaks and Geeks on DVD, and Matt and I watched the whole thing and loved it.

                  • I had never heard of Freaks & Geeks so I just Googled. Those boys went on to good things, James Franco, Seth Rogan and one of my favourites, Jason Segel. We don’t watch commercials either. We PVR everything and watch it later. You will love Downtown Abbey, The acting is so well done and the clothing, cars, etiquette, tradition and history all make for wonderful stories.

                    • If you can find a way to stream or borrow the DVD set of F&G you’d probably love it. Jason Segel plays this really lovable, slightly pathetic guy who dreams of being a drummer in a band. So many of the shows make you realize how hard it is to be an adolescent and how even the kids from stable homes can get totally messed up in high school. There is one hilarious counselor at the school who tries WAY too hard to be “cool.” I know I would love Downtown Abbey, it will just be a matter of finding the time to watch it. I had thought Jeff and I would watch a lot of movies after his liver resection but in reality, even though he was in hospital three weeks (with complications that led to two more surgeries) and then a couple of months home on a wound vac, he never felt like watching anything and I was so exhausted I doubt I could have stayed awake through anything. Now we dream of being able to do simple things like that in retirement. Thanks to digitization, Downtown Abbey and lots of other interesting things will be waiting for us if we can get there.

                    • May your road there be paved with healing and rejuvenation xoK
                      F&G sounds fun. I should see if it’s ‘On Demand’ on our PVR..I don’t know how it works but Mr B’s a wiz..LOL.

                    • I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who can’t work this video equipment! Thank goodness for those of us who can.

  4. MaryAnn

    Reading has always been highly important to me. (Another passion we share.) It is such a joy watching a child realize for the 1st time that they CAN read! Love & prayers.

    • That’s such a magic moment, isn’t it? I was so overjoyed to be able to read on my own, though I still enjoy hearing others read aloud. Hope you have a beautiful week!

  5. Carlyle

    Sometime , when I am feeling less restrained, I , who have actually traveled in time may tell you about it:-)

    • Great! I will look forward to it…or should I say, backward to it? 🙂

      • Carlyle needs to put more of this in writing – he has always told a good tale. As per these “writings”, today, they need to be preserved for posterity.

        • Daddy can tell stories for sure. I have always remembered the tale of T.J., the bucket-of-cold-water prank, and the resulting race around campus by a very angry guy in a towel looking for revenge (I might not have some of the details right, but you get the idea). Daddy, as far as you know, is your old navy buddy still alive? The head shot he sent us while he was starring in Peyton Place was used as a prop photo of “my husband Elbert” when I had the starring role in Sorry, Wrong Number in high school! So I guess you could say I made my acting debut with him. We do need to get some of these tales recorded.

          • Hey, by the way, look what I found…Daddy, did you know about this movie? Watching this clip makes me wish TJ had played Don Quixote sometime in his career (maybe he did?) He compiled a pretty impressive filmography.

  6. merry

    Julia…hello. read your blog early this morning on my smartphone{???} but didn’t respond.
    Reading has always been a joy for me. I read to all four of my children. Now as adults, they enjoy reading. I think we’ll always have libraries and some types of books.
    You, Jeff and Matt are in my prayers. Blessings.

    • Merry, thanks for stopping back by to say hello. I have never seen how this blog looks on a smartphone although I’ve heard that sometimes it doesn’t end up looking the same – hope it looks OK! Kudos to you for reading to your children. Precious memories for everyone involved. Thanks so much for the prayers! Blessings to you too, for a wonderful week.

  7. I own at least 1 Columbo movie in which TJ O’Connor played a part!

    • Until I read the filmography I had no idea how many shows he was in. I do remember it seemed like we were always seeing him on TV and saying, “Hey, there’s TJ!” I remember him being on All in the Family once – didn’t he play Edith’s old boyfriend or something like that?

      • That does ring a bell now that you’ve brought it up. I think TJ would be described as a character actor….wouldn’t he.

        • Yes, and apparently he was one of the most in-demand television actors of all time, while remaining mostly free of the level of celebrity that would be a real pain. It says something about his versatility as an actor, that he was able to play so many roles on so many television series, without getting strictly typecast or being too recognizable as a celebrity to blend into the story.

        • Yes, and apparently he was one of the most in-demand television actors of all time, while remaining mostly free of the level of celebrity that would be a real pain. It says something about his versatility as an actor, that he was able to play so many roles on so many television series, without getting strictly typecast or being too recognizable as a celebrity to blend into the story.

  8. Mike Bertoglio

    They have a display of some of these books at the Cloisters in NYC and some of them have gold leaf inlay for lettering and they almost seem to glow. Pretty amazing technology and like the art of making bamboo fishing rods- still in practice- bespeaks a time when such crafts were cherished.

    • It is amazing, and tells us a lot about human achievement even centuries ago. I think we tend to have this illusion that people are generally more civilized and less brutal today than we were long ago. I’m sure that’s true in some ways, but there have always been people who brought artistry into everyday life, and I’m so thankful for that.


  1. Books break the shackles | Defeat Despair

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