Inevitably, when someone is trying to advocate reading over watching things on screens, some variation of this old joke gets made: “Books are like movies inside your head!” This assumes everyone can—and does—create a full mental picture when they read, complete with sets, landscapes, costumed characters, and easy-to-follow action.
But that’s not how it works for me.
I’m fascinated by the variety of ways people “see” (or don’t see) books as they’re reading them. Most of the people I know are those “movie” types, where everything plays out clearly, created by the firmament of their minds. It leaves me paralyzed with envy, as I try in vain to picture (ha) what that must be like. My visual imagination is apparently content to leave quite a lot to the imagination. There are whole fields of study dedicated to how visual imagination works, and even more about how to “train” the imagination to be more precise in order to facilitate comprehension, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all doing this every time we pick up a book.
Sometimes when I read fiction, I consciously pull something directly from my memory—a face, an item, a place I’ve been to or seen in a photograph—as a visual stand-in. Otherwise, I get what I like to call “the smudges.”
Imagine that you had to visualize something, and everything that came to mind looked like an impressionist painting. Specifically, imagine that it looked like Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond. Imagine that people were just vague streaks of color with an occasional defining feature—their hair, a pair of glasses, the color of their gown. Imagine that you were only permitted to view the actions through frosted glass. Imagine that you read Lord of the Rings, and most of Tolkien’s descriptions of nature to you just read as green. Green. More green, tree green, grass green, hill green, I get it, it’s green, John Ronald! Let’s go to Isengard, at least I know it looks different there…
Sometimes I’ll “cast” actors as characters in books because it helps me see them better. Otherwise, my general sense of how they look will change constantly. At other times, everything will be a blur, but I’ll know what that one special sword looks like. Occasionally the picture of an environment comes through clearer than usual, and while it is always down to the author’s prose execution, I’m never exactly certain what causes the clarity. I do know that precision has nothing to do with it, and emotion does—when I get a “feel” for a place through prose, it always looks cleaner in my mind’s eye.
There are no movies in my head. There are smudges and jump cuts and brief glimmers of high-res. There is a strange composite of things I know and things I don’t know, like a shoebox diorama half painted and half made out of photographs cut from magazines. And I love when movies get made from stories I adore—whether they overwrite the vague image I had in my head or they fill in the gaps I couldn’t manage, they help me complete the pictures that my brain is choosing to leave half-finished. It’s extra exciting to have to image finally filled in all the way to the edges of the page.
But what’s more fascinating to me is that I don’t mind this setup as a reader. “Seeing” fiction the way I do can be aggravating when other people are busy regaling me with the complex pictures their mind has crafted and I feel left out, but this never diminishes my enjoyment of a story in the moment. It’s normal to me, and completely immersive regardless. I love the odd impressionist paintings of my mind, and the strange, half-formed entities that occupy them. They have their own little dimension to explore. They are real to me, even if they don’t look the part.
So now I’m very curious—how do you see what you read?
Originally posted in February 2019.