What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book

I read the strangest book a few months ago. I read it somewhat quickly because it was due back at the library, but I’ve been thinking about it since I finished. I bought it just so I could keep perusing it. I pick it up and just stare at it from time to time. It’s called What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book by James Elkins.

So, it’s a little hard to explain. The book is the author’s reflections on another book, which is a book of paintings of slices of logs. Yeah. So, that basically sold me right there.

I know that makes basically no sense,1 so to clarify: in the University of Glasgow’s library, there is a manuscript by an anonymous artist. That manuscript is a bunch of paintings of what the artist saw when gazing into the rings left in cut pieces of wood. This book, then, is James Elkins’ analysis of what he saw in those paintings.

And something about that just blows my mind.

I’m not sure if it’s the layers of reflection upon reflection, or if it’s the uncertainty that anything Elkins sees is actually there, or just the fact that the original manuscript exists at all. Maybe it’s the scrying upon scrying, or just the strangeness of someone staring into cut pieces of wood, or the echo of that bizarre act through paper and through time.

Whatever. I’m so into it.

I think a lot about illustration of children’s books, and the ways in which image relates to story. The works of Shaun Tan, for example, are incredible in their capacity to tell a story of depth in so many details. I also caught a super-specific David Macaulay obsession last year, because the way he uses white space is so interesting. I’m definitely not a person who ever has true favorites, but I always return to Maurice Sendak and the bitterness and clarity of his work for kids.2

But James Elkins is really into the ability of an image not to mean.3 And I wonder what kinds of possibilities there are for art for children there. Like, what is the actual purpose of illustrations in books? Is it always to illustrate? In some cases it must be to decorate, like illuminated manuscripts. Or William Morris’s ornamentation in the Kelmscott Chaucer.4 The idea that all images in a book add to the message of the book by portraying the text is not universal throughout time and space. And then there’s the question of which things are images…

Anyway, cutting short the rambling, I really liked this book. The end.

  1. There’s a kind of idea so outside your experience that you can’t process it, which then becomes familiar to the degree that it seems perfectly natural and you’re confused when other people don’t understand. The first time I heard about Edward Scissorhands was one for me. It happens so rarely for adults.
  2. Less into Maurice Sendak, master Blake-imitator. Watch this awesome interview though. Curmudgeons of note. He’s the crotchety grandfather every girl wants. (Was? Is, for me, since I live outside of time.)
  3. I typically regard the object-less verb “mean” with some suspicion, but in this case it’s kind of necessary. It does in some ways focus agency on the image.
  4. Read the page, but I particularly like this quote: “If we live to finish it…it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.”