Whither the book? The biggest cultural question of our time concerns the future, if any, of the printed word. Predictions of the death of the novel, or of the entire publishing industry, represent minor skirmishes in a cultural and educational battle between those who see themselves as defending the continuity of a purely literary tradition and those who hail the dawning of a new age of visual media and of the transmission of ideas and information through the cyberspace of computers.
But perhaps it needn't be like that. Cultural change is never clear cut, and the way forward may lie in forms of hybridity, in lateral thinking that bypasses the fundamentalisms of both bibliophiles and hackers. One example of such cross-fertilization is the For Beginners series, with their characteristic interpenetration of text and comic-strip graphic. And, appropriately, the two latest additions to the series - Postmodernism and Cyberspace - deal head-on with the cultural upheaval of which they are themselves a symptom.
Richard Appignanesi, the founder and editor of the series, got the idea from reading, in an Italian translation, an introduction to Marx created by the Mexican cartoonist Rius in the mid-1970s. Rius' main aim was political, to introduce Marxism to a semi-literate population. Appignanesi translated Rius' book into English and followed it up by publishing For Beginners titles on, among others, Freud (which he wrote himself), Einstein and Jung. Those early titles have proved very popular. Since its reissue in 1992, the Freud volume has sold in the region of 40,000 copies.
The series seems to appeal to two overlapping readerships, the first being students wanting a quick and easy way into people and topics that feature on their courses. According to Appignanesi, For Beginners titles do now feature some lecturers who may regard them as lightweight and unreliable because they are not purely textual. The Fontana Modern Masters and Oxford University Press Past Masters series offer obvious and respectable alternatives.
The second class of readers for the series is wider, though still primarily young. These are people who - though perhaps not even "beginners" in the sense of having no previous acquaintance with the subject - are attracted by the radical edge and irreverent twist of a For Beginners treatment. From past sales figures and feedback he has received, Appignanesi senses an interest among this general readership in current philosophical debates around postmodernism and post-structuralism. The Postmodernism volume, for which Appignanesi has written the text, may be followed up by studies of the past (Hegel and Kant are two examples) who have been the focus of re-examination by post-structuralist critics. A second possible future direction is the graphic explication of topics at the forefront of modern science. A volume on Stephen Hawking is shortly to be published, for the many people who are interested enough to buy a Brief History of Time but were unable to make it past page 30.
What about the books themselves? Do they offer something that a straight text, however well written, can't? Or do they trivialise and dilute the subject-matter? The short answer is that some do and some don't. A wide range of writers and artists have been used, producing a variety of approaches to the problem of marrying text and graphic. Freud for Beginners is an extreme case of the use of comic-strip format, and it works brilliantly for a subject that has narratives at its heart - the case histories; the development of the individual through "oral" "anal" and "phallic" stages; and Freud's own life.
Like Freud, Darwin for Beginners cleverly uses art historical pastiche and montage to create an historical atmosphere and a range of resonant visual references. The use of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, sleuthing their way through the mysteries of evolution, is a witty way of introducing the reader to a potentially daunting subject. Jonathan Miller's text is clear and trenchant, though surprisingly thin on human evolution.
Two of the more recent additions to the series display quite different approaches. Feminism for Beginners, though published in 1992, is reminiscent in its humourless tone and somewhat grim visual style of Seventies agit-prop. The concentration on iconic historical figures (Mary Wollstonecraft, the Pankhursts etc) and the cursory treatment of current debates surrounding "post-feminism" compound the old-fashioned feel. Much more successful is the volume on Buddha, with a visual style more that of elegant illustration than comic strip. Jane Hope's text is an exemplary introduction to a fascinating subject, being both persuasive and intelligently critical.
The two latest volumes demonstrate how hit-or-miss the For Beginners format can be. Cyberspace for Beginners down-loads indigestible quantities of technical and historical information on to the reader and when it's not doing that it tends to be padded out with vacuous sound-bites: "Truth and beauty are part of the human condition and are reflected in the technology of the age." Not a good advertisement for the brave new world.
Postmodernism for Beginners, by contract, represents a perfect match of form and content, an elegant explanation and exemplification of its subject. Chris Garratt, The Guardian's "Biff" cartoonist, is an excellent choice for illustrator, being an artist steeped in the postmodernist sensibility. Richard Appignanesi's text moves smoothly from the aesthetics of modernism through post-structuralist criticism to zapped-out junk postmodernism, an absorbing journey from Mondrian to Madonna. Only the last sentence remains gnomic and unpacked: "The only cure for postmodernism is the incurable illness of romanticism." Perhaps a future Romanticism For Beginners will begin to explain it.
For Beginners, Icon Books Pounds 7.99 each