During a recent camel trek deep into the heart of the Sahara,
I was eager to visualize the animal that had visited our bivouac
at night and that our Tuareg guide had identified by its tracks
as a fennec, so I turned to my Lonely Planet printouts for help.
On the double page devoted to wildlife in Algeria, I thus read
that “the fennec fox is a gloriously adapted, largely nocturnal
species with fur-soled feet to protect against scorching sands
and comically large ears.” I flipped the pages back and forth,
naturally expecting an illustration of this fox, but found none.
Anywhere else, I would at once have typed fennec in Google
to search the Web for images, but there it was not an option,
and I was thus left to imagine all sorts of “comically large ears”
on a fur-soled fox. Ditto for the gundi, a large rodent “which
can stop breathing for up to a minute to hide itself from prey”
(interesting piece of trivia, but what does a gundi look like?)
and for the jerboa, a four-toed rodent “that sometimes hops
through desert camps at night in search of food” (not enough
of a description to know a jerboa when I see one, I'm afraid).
Myself, I have long been something of a “word rights activist”,
willing to admit that a picture can be worth a thousand words
but insisting that a word can be worth a thousand pictures, too
(the word fennec alone was worth about 116 000 image results
in the Google search I performed once I got back to civilization).
A believer in the power of effective redundancy between verbal
and nonverbal codings, I often find images without text to be
ambiguous and needlessly concrete (see Entries 2, 15, and 21).
In the present case, however, the concrete richness of images
(ideally even line drawings rather than photographs) is exactly
what my Lonely Planet guide was lacking. Trekkers interested
in a guide's wildlife section are most likely looking to identify
those animals they happen to spot. In the case of the Sahara,
sketches of animal tracks in the sand would have been handy,
too. You might argue that such is not the (primary) purpose
of the Lonely Planet collection. Perhaps so. But in such a case,
why include a section on wildlife? What purpose does it serve?
More problematic still than the imageless wildlife section was
the sidebar “Tying your taguelmoust”—a nine-step procedure
that aims to help you tie your Tuareg turban in a (and I quote)
“relatively easy way”. Devoid of illustrations, it runs sentences
such as (Step 4) “Place your left hand across your body and
tense it so that your four fingers are pointing out to your right
and your thumb is pointing to the sky” and (Step 5) “Holding
your left hand just below your right shoulder, about chest high
and about 15 cm out from your body, grasp the nearest fold
of the long length of cloth in your left hand between the thumb
and flattened forefinger.” If you read these instructions slowly
and think hard enough, you can probably figure out what to do,
but what a complex and needless transfer between the verbal
and the visual processes in our brains. A few simple sketches
would help make the procedure simpler and faster— starting
with giving us an idea of the end result we are to achieve here.
The procedure above is up for improvement in its verbal part,
too, to avoid the redundant “in a full circle … until you return
to where you started” and the cryptic “Repeat as many times
as necessary” (necessary for… what purpose?), not to mention
the poor segmentation of the task in what are too many steps.
Lonely Planet must be aware of the procedure's shortcomings,
though, as evidenced by the tongue-in-cheek but little useful
final step: “Ask your Tuareg guide to sort it out.” Yeah, right.