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Drawing on the power of pictures

If you can follow the narrative of a music video, you know the visual age is getting easier to understand. Even pop-star Prince has taken a step past language, changing his name to an icon. In fact, there seems to be precious little that can't be communicated with slick imagery and, at most, one or two words for flavoring. With the success of Art Spiegelman's Maus books, visuals are weaving their way into the literature to expand the frontiers of what we know as reading. The novel, textbook and cultural commentary, in pictures, offer anyone impatient with the slow pleasures of reading a stimulating (and fast) way to read an honest-to-goodness book. But is it the same thing? Or are the new breed of illustrated books simply picture books by another name?

Richard Osborne's Philosophy for Beginners (Writers and Readers, $9.95) delivers just exactly what the title suggests, an overview of western philosophical thought from Pythagoras to Derrida and many of the offshoots in between. Ralph Edney's accompanying sober illustrations reminded me of the neat cartoons in the old Classic Comics, but they contrast well with the wry humor of the text. Concisely drawn in a documentary style, the images brace up engaging, simplified discussions of Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza while providing an almost architectural substance to the book. Here are the philosophies of the world on the half-shell, neatly served and available for consumption. For anyone wary of the contradictory strands of ethical and moral thought, Philosophy for Beginners is still enjoyable, a much easier and more fun way to study philosophy.

Lighter at heart, but again chock full of valuable factoids, The Cartoon Guide to (non) Communication by Larry Gonick (Harper Perennial, $13) ranges intellectually from Noam Chomsky's linguistic theory to the evolution of computer language. The guide ranges far and

The dino within: Larry Gonick's cartoons help his discussion of communication.

wide to examine theories of language and communication strategies. To my mind, any discussion of linguistics can benefit from pictures _ slides of a tropical beach, for example, or snapshots of my Aunt Wanda _ anything to distract me from the abstract. Except for an occasional, strange bend toward corporate management policy, the casual cartooning and witty text have a lot to teach. On the whole, author Larry Gonick does a terrific job of illuminating an esoteric subject, something he has done before in his Cartoon History of the Universe.

The subject of history, especially presidential history, is usually duller and more subjective than anyone imagines. One of the first books to really put the finger on the Bush presidency, (although for me, Millie's Book came awfully close) is Eyes on The President, George Bush: History in Essays and Cartoons (Chronos Publishing, $24.95). Edited together by theme, each chapter is introduced by fairly lengthy essays discussing in some depth the highlights of the Bush years. With the background explained, political cartoonists from around the country tee off in chapters such as "Savings and Loan Scandal" and "Iran-Contra." The editor, Leo E. Heagarty, has compiled some of the most trenchant political satire and accurate reporting, in any medium, on the years 1988-1992. Here is where the picture can really tell. Eyes on The President makes its case in a serious fashion; one could imagine this book realizing its ambition to be a textbook for political science courses.

As anyone knows who uses a personal computer to run graphics software, images make things easier, but they use up a lot more space than text. But, conversely, images often sacrifice depth of a subject for breadth. They can help us receive a message, but they don't always help us understand it. While visual books don't necessarily make readers as passive as TV, the combination of reading and looking at pictures isn't the same, not yet anyway, as reading pure language. But never mind that _ pictures here are worth at least a few hundred words, and they are fun after all. We could read a lot more straight textbooks and learn much less.

Philip Herter, a New York writer, is fluent in English, Spanish and Toon.

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