Visual, aural, other?

Two blog posts on reading that piqued my interest lately:

  • Ari Marmell talks about being “Blind in the Mind’s Eye.” That is, when reading or writing descriptions, he does not visualize them, and if he takes the conscious effort to do so, “it doesn’t seem to add much value.” I would have loved to know what he does perceive foremost when reading…
  • …an answer to which might be provided by Matthew Cheney’s discussion of “Ways of Reading,” in which he describes his own, primarily aural experience of the written word. Cheney also comments on the general usefulness of reading analytical (versus evaluative) criticism as a way of gaining access to other people’s perceptions of the same works – which is indeed a major part of why I love reading detailed, descriptive essays.

Since I’m always fascinated by differences in how people process and organize information – how do YOU read? Do you hear sounds first, or create images in your head, or some combination of the two, and/or something else entirely? Have you noticed that it affects what types of writing you prefer to read, or what you remember from what you’ve read and how you remember it? Somewhat on a tangent/more generally, do you feel that books demand you to read them in any particular way?  (I have one friend who can’t read a book unless she’s concurrently taking exhaustive notes and marking bits off with Post-Its. You should see her copies of  Thomas Pynchon and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.)

I’d describe myself as being primarily visual – although since I perversely have rather bad spatial and cognitive mapping skills, I suck at visualizing expansive and/or complex architecture and geography, except in a very impressionistic way. (Hence why sci-fi description frequently demands multiple re-reads from me – alien architecture and three-dimensional battle scenes are Right Out.) I notice aural qualities mostly on a subconscious level; if I’m interested in paying explicit attention to them, I either have to make a conscious effort of it, or read things aloud. (I suspect that’s not uncommon.) Secondary to my visual perceptions, I tend to form an overall sensual/synaesthetic impression, which is not infrequently influenced by the cover art. (Yep, I really, really do judge book covers, on more levels than one.) A random sampling:

  • Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is flat, grey-white/blue-grey, and concretey. Her Earthsea Cycle is twilight-purple and gold, fading warmth, sun just gone under a horizon of black waves.
  • Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is dark, warm, glossy, and… squishy. Like a molten chocolate cake (appropriately).
  • A. S. Byatt’s short stories are greyish-gold light filtering through shallow water.
  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender books are austere, even greyness, shading towards graphite, and a few degrees below room temperature.

That impression is a huge factor in my decision to re-read things – if I really, really like the feel of it, I want to have it recreated. It’s analogous, for me, to being attached to particular aspects of a season or time of day – wanting to see late-afternoon autumn sunlight coming in through a particular window, or to feel a particular temperature of breeze, say. I feel like there has to be a word for that in German…

– E

6 thoughts on “Visual, aural, other?”

  1. “I would have loved to know what he does perceive foremost when reading…”

    It’s not an easy answer to articulate, honestly. Best I can describe it, it’s not that I “perceive” anything. I read the words, I absorb the meaning. But it doesn’t “translate” into any other sort of mental content. It’s like I very literally think *narratively*, rather than visually, aurally, etc.

    It’s not 100% sort of thing. Sometimes I get images or hear particular voices when I read (or role-play). But it’s a *vast* minority of the time; like, less than 1%.

    It doesn’t feel weird to me, but apparently it sounds weird when describing it to others. ;-)

  2. Hi Ari (and thanks for the visit and comment) – That’s absolutely fascinating! I would call it unusual, but not weird. :) I’m irrepressibly curious about the insides of other people’s heads, so do you mind if I ask a couple of nosy questions? (please don’t feel obligated to answer all, or any of them, if you don’t want to…) For example, if asked to describe a book, would you then describe it largely in terms of narrative content? Do you find that you are less interested in works that are heavier on visual/sensual atmosphere than, say, character interactions and plot? When you yourself are writing a visual-heavy scene, what is your “reference” for the visuals that you are translating into text, especially if it’s something that you haven’t seen yourself before, or doesn’t actually exist – how do you decide how to describe something?

  3. Nah, not nosy at all. :-)

    I definitely tend to think of books, first and foremost, narratively. If you ask me about a book, I’ll usually talk about *what* happens first, then *who’s* involved. (That’s not always the case, mind; just more often.)

    And while I’m all for a good turn of phrase and rich description, you’re absolutely right. My first and foremost priority is plot and character interaction; if that’s lacking, no amount of prose–however solid–is going to make me love the book. (It’s one of the reasons why, even in my “vampire-heavy” phase, I was never a huge fan of Anne Rice.)

    As for when I’m writing a visual scene… I guess I just think about what description sounds good. Fortunately, it seems to translate pretty well, as I’ve had numerous people–mostly fans, but even a few who otherwise aren’t crazy about my stuff ;-)–comment on my action scenes being very visual. So I guess it works.

  4. That’s really interesting. I’m not sure exactly how I DO experience books & reading, really. Can I disclaim that it has been forever since I read a book that was neither for med school nor nonfiction?

    It used to be that watching a scary movie, even one with terrible effects, etc. somehow affected me much more than books that had similar, or scarier, imagery. I always had to sleep with a nightlight, etc., while I was fine with books. I took this to mean that I wasn’t experiencing the books in a primarily visual sense. I think I tend to focus more on plot. When I’m reading, it’s always about, “What’s happening next?” Possibly, “What’s happening next to this character?”

    … You have made me want to go read a fiction book so I can go figure this out. :-/

  5. For me I think it’s primarily visual. I tend to see certain things pretty clearly in my mind’s eye–not the characters themselves, but places or objects, or scenes. There are gaps, though. Unless an entire countryside is really stunningly described, I’ll see individual bits but not the whole. And it strikes me that what I see is so vague and internal that it’s entirely impossible to describe to someone else. The same holds true for characters. I don’t know what they look like, but I know what they don’t look like.

    On the other hand, I very much have the sense of the narrator of a given book as a voice. So I have same sort of reaction with audio books–if the voice is wrong (which it usually is), I can’t listen to it.

    I suspect I have other impressions of books which are so unformed that I’m not even going to attempt to say them, although I think that they do tend towards color.

    Oh, and as a side comment, I think you would enjoy this site:

  6. Ari – Thanks so much for sharing! Hmm, so much food for thought, and also another good reason to remember not to be prescriptive about reading preferences. :)

    Also, I did some Googling on the side and managed to find some relevant information, including a citation based on a survey (described a bit in first link) that about 3% of the population have absolutely no ability to visualize. (the post by “wyzewoman” is )
    Hope some of that might be interesting to you; I certainly had fun reading it.

    Can I disclaim that it has been forever since I read a book that was neither for med school nor nonfiction?
    Ugggh, too familiar with that situation. hope you can remedy that, stat! Winter break is approaching…

    I took this to mean that I wasn’t experiencing the books in a primarily visual sense. … When I’m reading, it’s always about, “What’s happening next?”
    That does make sense. Ahh, so much fun hearing about all these differences in how people read and perceive!

    I don’t know what they look like, but I know what they don’t look like.
    I run into that some of the time, too. Hence why I get perhaps too excited if I find a piece of fanart that manages to capture what was in my head. :)

    I very much have the sense of the narrator of a given book as a voice.
    I’ve seen other readers and writers reporting this, and always found it fascinating, since I don’t form a strong sense of it – which I rather regret, as I quite like voices. Any audiobooks that have been particularly “on” for you?

    And I did very much enjoy that link, thank you. :D Vintage sff covers are in a class of their own. And I love that the site even has a rating system.

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