I recently read an article by Blake Ross on his experience with aphantasia, a condition where someone does not have a “mind’s eye” and is unable to visualize things that are not there. Many people when asked to visualize, say, a calming beach would see an image projecting in the back of their brain, usually a moving picture, sometimes complete with sound, smell, and touch (though some of these senses are more difficult for people to recreate). When someone with aphantasia is asked to visualize a calming beach, they will logically list things that would appear there: waves, sand, cliffs, seagulls. They will not, however, reconstruct those items visually because their brain doesn’t function that way.
Aphantasia can lead to a different experience of the words “daydreaming” and “memory”, but one thing that struck me in this particular article was Ross’ brief explanation of his reading habits. He used to worry that he was “doing reading wrong” since he always skipped descriptive language in novels. If you think about it, what good would descriptive narration do for someone who cannot add it to an ongoing picture in their mind? As a writer himself, Ross talked about how this has affected his writing style. Where one author might write an excessively descriptive line about the physical attributes of a character, Ross might write something like “there was an assassin”.
This got me thinking about taste in literature and why we write the way we write. At it’s core, the goal of writing is communication. How effectively you can transfer a thought from one mind to another. But what if your mind is wired differently than your reader’s, what happens then?
If I take a look at my own reading style or “my brain on books”, I am an extremely logical reader. I focus on motivations, chronology, and movement. While I don’t think that I have aphantasia by any means (I can recreate audio, visual, and usually smell on command), I think the way that I read books is non-visual. When I read a book, I actually hear the characters talking much more often than I see them. I’m a big fan of skipping ahead to scenes with dialogue in books because they have the most “noise”. The only visual aspect I do often play out in my mind while reading is the blocking (movement) of a scene with dialogue. This may be because I was raised on theater and in stage productions we always learned the blocking of a scene before memorizing our lines. They would have us walk around the stage, mentally charting where we stand and sit, and then two weeks later, we would add in the memorized dialogue, the sounds. Maybe that was ingrained into me, who knows. But now when I read I match the character’s words to their movements, even if an author doesn’t tell me them. If a character starts to get sad, I think to myself, “she would logically sit down here”. But if you ask me to tell you the color of the sofa the main character just sat down on, well, I probably skipped that paragraph ages ago.
As a result of this reading style when I write fiction there is a lot of noise. I like to tell people what sounds are happening in the scene, as if I were creating one of those old time radio shows that families would gather around in their living room. I love dialogue–Hills Like White Elephants? Magic. Also 80% dialogue.
But it’s not just that I enjoy dialogue. I actually get angry at description. I remember trying to read Tolkien and getting so frustrated. I remember thinking, “Why is he describing this table for two paragraphs? This is useless!” But it wasn’t. Not to someone who is a heavily visual reader.
So when we say the word “reading”, we’re not all talking about the same thing. Some of us are describing letting our minds carry us to new worlds populated with intricate architecture, beautiful food, and I guess really elaborate tables. Some of us “read” by following a story logically, mapping out emotions and motivations that follow around the main characters. Some of us hear a radio show in our head, distinct tones and pitches that weave us in and out of dialogue.
My question to you is: how do you describe your reading experience? Do think it relates to your preferences in any way or even how you define “good” literature?