The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Word?s Worth a Thousand Pictures

May 19, 2008
Weatherford, TX

Whenever somebody tells me a picture is worth a thousand words, it makes me so mad I want to spit. This bastard canard has more than a thousand fathers, but the most interesting share of the blame lands on two men who should've known better. A sentence reading ?The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book" appears in the novel Fathers and Sons by, of all people, the great writer Ivan Turgenev. But we owe the first appearance of the foul phrase in its present form to one Arthur Brisbane. A newspaper editor from Buffalo, Brisbane worked for yellow journalism tycoon William Randolph Hearst, which already explains a lot. In March of 1911, in a speech before the Syracuse Advertising Men's Club, Brisbane advised his listeners to "Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words."


Katie Richardson?s Big Read poster for Weatherford, Texas., has a majesty almost, but not quite, beyond words.

Let's take a minute here to consider this publisher's audience: namely, a room full of admen. He's exhorting them to emphasize pictures over words in their advertising. Could it possibly have escaped this newshound's attention that pictures, in addition to their putative thousand words' worth, also tend to require more column inches to do them justice than print ads do? I'm inclined to doubt it. As a newspaperman, in other words, Brisbane had every reason -- except the truth, that is -- to want a room full of advertisers to go tell their clients that ?a picture is worth a thousand words.? What he really meant, though, was ?a picture is worth a thousand dollars.?

I bring all this up not just because I no longer have a newspaper editor of my own urging me to get to the point quicker, but also because I've just returned from Weatherford, Texas, where the poster art by local designer Katie Richardson accompanied all materials for a stylish, just-concluded Big Read of Cather's My Ántonia. Is that gorgeous or what?

But it all would have gone for naught, save for the Herculean efforts of principal grantee Weatherford College's Linda Bagwell. From the look of her, Linda couldn't decide whether to celebrate, cry, or pass out from happy exhaustion at Wednesday's finale, and she more or less split the difference among the three.

Linda didn't pull off a successful Big Read alone; no grantee ever does. Spirited volunteers had spent the afternoon squiring me through the Doss Heritage and Cultural Center, an impressive, appropriately barnlike new museum of the West, lately hosting Cather expert Betty Kort's traveling photo show ?Willa Cather and Material Culture.?

I also lucked into a tour of the Douglas Chandor Gardens, a botanical wonderland landscaped by a 20th-century British portraitist to both the great -- Roosevelt, Churchill -- and the merely solvent. As I understand it, Chandor had followed his Titian-haired socialite bride home to her native Weatherford to settle, right after the necessary divorces became final. My only regret is that I had just missed The Big Read party there, and with it the shade of Cather presiding silently under the wisteria arbor.

Dozens more partners had pitched in all month, including everybody from the Weatherford Independent School District to Tesky Western Wear -- all to make Linda's job a little easier. By the dozens she invited them up on the stage of the college's capacious Alkek Fine Arts Center for a commemorative final picture, until it almost might've seemed more sensible to leave them in the audience after all, and invite the photographer on stage instead.

Practically last but nowhere near least was Katie Richardson, shyly accepting a deserved and unreserved ovation for her spectacular poster. It wasn't worth a thousand words, but it had helped rope most of Parker County into an unforgettable April and May with My Ántonia. That's a miracle beyond counting.