Brian Selznick's Enchanting books suggest a new form of storytelling


Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, hardcover

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press

The French ophthalmologist Louis Émile Javal discovered more than a century ago that as we track text across the page, our eyes are really jumping all around, three or four times per second. These rapid eye movements, or saccades, disrupt our perception of the text, and as Alberto Manguel writes in his wonderful A History of Reading, “It is only during the brief pause between movements that we actually ‘read.’”

I thought about this as I listened to Brian Selznick talk about how he conceptualized combining text and images in his 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret . Selznick, like all storytellers, was interested in creating that magical effect a good narrative can have on a reader. But beyond that, as Selznick says in a video interview for his publisher, he was after producing a particular consciousness in a reader through the physical act of turning the page. In that thought-pause, defined by anticipation of where the story will go next, the text ends and you fall into a crosshatched, penciled imaginarium that seems to flow from the last words of the previous page. The drawings then proceed in clumps of pages, the grayscale, light and dark, pushing you and the story forward until—page turn—you are deposited back into words. You are transported, not just by text, not just by pictures, but by Selznick’s magical combination of the two.

Invention—now out in much-diminished form as Martin Scorsese’s 3D movie Hugo—is the classic tale of a lost boy. Orphaned and secreted in the walls of a 1920s Paris train station, he labors to bring an automaton to life, a golem he hopes will channel his dead father’s love through the writing or drawings it will produce once he finds the heart-shaped key that winds it. Hugo finds his female doppelgänger in Isabelle, orphaned and being raised by an old tinker in the train station who is in fact Georges Méliès, virtuoso cinemagician of early film. Philosophy, deep human emotion, and layered historical allusions, a postmodern mélange, ensue. If you are lucky, like me, and read this book with a boy of about Hugo’s age, you are forever altered. And if you have read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you have no choice but to read Wonderstruck, Selznick’s new book of text and images.

Selznick tweaks his methodology in Wonderstruck . Instead of having the text narrative flow directly into the visual narrative of his drawings, Selznick tells two separate stories, one in words, one in images. What he does, slowly at first and then faster and tighter, is wind the picture story and the word story together until you are left with only one story. As the final pages turn, your mind again pauses as the bread-crumb trail that Selznick has left for you throughout both picture and word stories begins to lead to a coherent whole, a truth, meaning.

Wonderstruck is the story of 1970s Ben, another boy on a vision quest for his dead father, and 1920s Rose, desiring the impossibly beautiful and glamorous world of a Hollywood starlet. Their parallel stories, separated in space and time, are suffused with longing, and both characters are deaf. Their fates merge in New York City, among the dioramas of the Museum of Natural History, and with the literary kismet only possible in the Big Apple, it all seems plausible. Allegories, tragic in the classical sense, arise, story folds into story, and beauty ensues. If you are the kind of reader who’s able to give over your heart to a tale and its telling, this one can leave you stunned.

In our age of proliferating images, streaming from Adobe Flash players and high-def screens, Kindle Fires, and iPad LED backlighting, many worry about the fate of print literacy. Beyond his wonderful storytelling, what Selznick’s creations allow is a different view of this straw-man debate between text and visual literacy. We can’t just drop some JavaScript movement or streaming video into a text and expect it to produce learning and enlightenment. But neither do we need to pontificate that the old ways are best, that the reader is best served by his solitary engagement with the words and white space bound in a book (or digitized on an e-reader).

The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck open a window of possibility. In our digitized world where we monetize the page view, literally commodifying the movements of our eyeballs, we live in the age of the saccades, our eyes jumping all around. Selznick’s work provides a place where we can pause and read—that place in our mind’s eye where we actually see and hear and feel what the story is telling us.

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy