How do you read vividly?
January 29, 2009 1:07 AM   Subscribe

Since I began a reading life (at about age eight), I have had a problem: my mind automatically places action in just a few places familiar to me from my life: my house, the main street of my hometown. Whether the action in a novel takes place in 16th century Scotland, or the Black Forest, or under the Unisphere. Are there ways to get around this, or to learn to read fiction more actively, and, fantastically/creatively?

Do you actively visualize a setting when you read? Do you see anything at all? (Does viewing a movie adaptation change this?) Do you study a historical novel's setting and time before or while you read? I have been reading Obama's Dreams From My Father, and searching on Flickr tags when he mentions a place name. It helps.
posted by Tufa to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I have a similar problem with descriptions of persons: I never get a picture of what they really look like, what 'types' they are supposed to represent.
I have observed that my reading behavior mirrors my weaknesses, so to speak. I noticed that I tend to fast-forward during the passages where these persons are being described - so in a way, I make things even more difficult for myself. Perhaps you're doing the same with descriptions of places.

The first thing you could do is to force yourself to read extra carefully when a place of action is being described, and to try to wrap your mind a little extra around what the words mean.

Then there are those writers who use places in a name-dropping manner, that is, they just say "Biarritz", "Amsterdam" or "Soho" but they never actually explain what specifically we're supposed to see. In such a case, your tactic to look on the web for more information is great. I've been reading maps along with some books in a similar fashion.
posted by Namlit at 1:57 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Watching the film version of a novel helps me to visualise things like costumes and buildings. I don't actively study a historical novel's setting, but it's nice to know something about the era. Contemporary poetry is often a good source of information, as are diaries, satirical prints and paintings.

I think, of course, that the amount of visualisation depends on the novelist. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov would be good examples of novels where it's impossible not visualise the settings, because they are described in detail. However, with someone like Shakespeare I don't normally bother to imagine anything but the most basic surroundings, because his plays can be enjoyed solely in terms of the interactions between the characters.

Also, failing to visualise can be a virtuous activity. Some books continue to rely on lazy stereotypes; ignoring these is probably the most intelligent approach.
posted by mattn at 2:18 AM on January 29, 2009

I don't have a problem with settings, but I do sometimes with characters. Some fat person I knew slightly twenty years ago has appeared in my mind's eye, quite inappropriately, as the protagonist of most of John Irving's novels, for example.

Films do make a difference - Humbert Humbert is only ever going to be James Mason in my mind, although he really shouldn't have that accent - and pictures help, too. Not many serious novels have illustrations these days (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the only exception that comes to mind), but if I have a suitable picture of a character and look at it while reading I find I can usually over-write Fatty or whoever is trying for the part.
posted by Phanx at 2:52 AM on January 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I find I often stop reading whenever there's a description of a new place or person, and make a concerted effort to piece together the information into a proper picture in my mind's eye. Then only once the description has crystallised in my mind do I carry on.
posted by lucidium at 3:23 AM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you, this is really interesting. I like hearing about how others read. It's true, I've never had this problem with Nabokov (I have instantly "seen" telephone wires strung alongside a train, for example, in Speak, Memory)
"I could see the corridor window, where the wires--six thin black wires--were doing their best to slant up, to ascend skyards, despite the lightning blows dealt them by one telegraph pole after another" (143)
or books which give explicit "stage directions" (like Watership Down, where every hop under a bush is described). Regarding illustrations, I wish every book came with drawings by Garth Williams, like in Charlotte's Web and The Rescuers.

A branching-off question: which are the most cinematic writers? In Updike's obituary I read how he thought and wrote his novels visually, in terms of a series of movie scenes.
posted by Tufa at 5:11 AM on January 29, 2009

I don't know what your life experiences are or if you have only turned age ten?!? Given that you have traveled extensively here and abroad and/or lived a relatively full life since age eight then an average reader should be able to be more imaginative in adapting written words into broader scenarios. I can imagine medeival towns because I have been to quite a few. I have experienced a lot of different scenes and life in different social stratas. Movies can give you images but the imagination is based more on experiences than pictures.

Broaden your experiences by reading not only novels but history books, National Geographic, travelogues with a sprinkling of old or ancient texts. Many authors may have been inspired by reading Voltaire, Pushkin, or Plato. Reading them will help you to see where the story is coming from.
posted by JJ86 at 5:46 AM on January 29, 2009

Best answer: I'm not sure if this Boing Boing article influenced your question, but if not, it's a stunning coincidence: "Your brain on fiction: we simulate action we read in narrative." The post reports on (and links to) a study in Psychological Science that finds that "reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities." I think it might provide some insight into what you're wondering about.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 5:46 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

In response to your second question about cinematic writers... you should read The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a book of interviews between novelist / poet / sometimes filmmaker Michael Ondaatje and film editor / sound designer Murch in which the intersection between literature and film is discussed extensively. I have a feeling you would really enjoy this book.

One book I read recently that I thought would make a magnificent film is Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees. Someone put this on Terry Gilliam's desk, please.
posted by oulipian at 5:53 AM on January 29, 2009

Best answer: Your question is an intriguing incite into the workings of other, reading, minds - thank you.

I do not necessarily visualise scenes in a book, but I do have a visceral sense of them that lingers in my head as I read them. It is surely impossible to find categorically similar scenes and locations in the 'real world' that will help you visualise EVERYTHING you encounter in the fictional world. For instance, take this descriptive passage of a vinyl-record groove from Nicholson Baker's wonderful novel, The Mezzanine:

If you made a negative of that image of my skate blade’s gorge, you would arrive at the magnified record groove—a hushed black river valley of asphaltic ripples soft enough to be impressed with the treads of your Vibram soles; an image cast from a master mold that was the result of a stylus forced to plow through wax as it negotiated complex mechanical compromises between all the various conceptually independent oscillations that stereophony demanded of it; ripples so interfingered and confused that only after a day with surveying equipment, pacing off distances and making calculations (your feet sparking static with each step) are you able to spray-paint “Bass Clarinet” with some confidence in orange on an intermittent flume of vinyl, as workers in Scotchgard vests spray-paint the road to indicate utility lines beneath. Cobblestone-sized particles of airborne dust, unlucky spores with rinds like coconuts, and big obsidian chunks of cigarette smoke are lodged here and there in the oddly echoless surface, and once in a while, a precious boulder of diamond, shorn somehow from the stylus by this softer surface, shines out from the slope, where it has been pounded deep into the material by later playings, sworn at by the listener as if it too were common dust. That was needle wear.

A sense of this scene is more than enough for me. I can only meditate on this in a kind of mental awe - no movie or photographic rendition of this would ever do it justice.

Basically, don't feel like you are missing out on some kind of visual inner richness: some of us don't experience the world in a visual way. There are other, inner - just as visceral sensations - that will do justice to descriptive prose.
posted by 0bvious at 5:56 AM on January 29, 2009 [7 favorites]

...that should be 'insight' not 'incite'.
posted by 0bvious at 6:01 AM on January 29, 2009

Best answer: Your question also reminded me of a quote attributed to André Breton:
The man who can't visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.
No offence intended...
posted by 0bvious at 6:01 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bradbury said the same thing of his writing, that each paragraph was a cinematic "shot."
posted by Nattie at 6:44 AM on January 29, 2009

I know exactly what you're talking about--I thought I was the only one who did this! When I'm reading, I can only visualize scenes and conversations taking place in rooms where I have lived. (I do have a certain number of "rooms from movies" in my arsenal, but all of these rooms are from movies I saw as a very young child.) Now, I've lived in dozens of houses, so I do enjoy a bit of variety, but certain rooms are featured very heavily in my visualization and others not at all. It's completely involuntary--I don't "choose" which room in my past would be the most appropriate fit for a particular scene. They just appear.

I don't know if it indicates a paucity of imagination or a lack of good spatial sense, but it's so instinctive that I can only overcome it when I notice what I'm doing and make a conscious effort to break up the automatic room and replace it with a version that corresponds with the book's description. Even so, this "constructed room" only stands for a few minutes before the automatic takes its place again.

Often, however, I don't visualizing setting at all--I'm busy paying attention to the architecture of the language itself, as Obvious articulates above. It's possible that certain people miss out on the actual scenery of books because we're concentrating more on the atmosphere that a book generates, which is a different kind of scenery.

I'll be following this thread with interest, because I don't know the answer myself.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 7:10 AM on January 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've never been a visual reader and have never really understood the people who say it's "like a movie in my head." For me, it's just not. It's print on a page and sound in my head. This doesn't create any kind of problem for me, it's just the way I've always read--and, using the OP's language, I don't think it's any less "active" or "creative," it's just active and creative in a different way.

When I was writing poetry some years ago, the sound and rhythm always mattered more to me than the visuals, and I think that's a natural extension of my reading style. Sound and rhythm still matter a great deal in anything that I write, come to think of it.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:11 AM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster:
"Often, however, I don't visualizing setting at all--I'm busy paying attention to the architecture of the language itself ..."
PRB: Yes, that is exactly it. It's the language itself that predominates. And word order and how sentences relate to each other. Like mattn said, maybe I need to read more poetry. Interval training for the visually-challenged!

0bvious: Well, regarding horses and tomatoes, given a well-wrought description of a horse riding on a tomato, I don't think I'd have trouble. If I read, "there went a horse galloping down the street on a tomato," I have no doubt it would be happening in my mind in downtown Ossining, NY. (Not actually from Ossining.)
posted by Tufa at 7:55 AM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster: Rudy Gerner: Wow. No, this is just stunning coincidence. This question has been in my head and troubling me a long time, and I only look at Boing Boing once a month.
posted by Tufa at 7:59 AM on January 29, 2009

Tufa: Making it even more coincidental, I look at Boing Boing incredibly rarely--maybe once every several months. I just was clicking around and got there somehow right after I read your question. Whoas all around! Hope it's helpful, it seemed really interesting from the more scientific/less anecdotal or experiential perspective.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 8:19 AM on January 29, 2009

Best answer: Whenever I start doing that I consider some sort of mental rut that I am having. I'll keep this simple and just say it helps for me to stop and go look up or google the sites or periods that I am reading about. It helps me "reset" my brain to make it more realistic and I get much more out of it that way.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 8:26 AM on January 29, 2009

A branching-off question: which are the most cinematic writers? In Updike's obituary I read how he thought and wrote his novels visually, in terms of a series of movie scenes.

I think Hemingway and Fitzgerald were both very cinematic. Hemingway with his famous "short declarative sentences" focused almost exclusively on action at the expense of flowery dialogue or description. And Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," is incredibly visual. It's also like a movie in that the plot is incredibly tightly structured and constantly advances without the digressions so many novelists indulge in.

Actually in my opinion most 20th and 21st century novels are very cinematic, at least the good ones. There was a time when people who lived in the country had literally never seen a picture of London, or the inside of a rich person's house, so multi-page descriptions were useful and probably even fascinating. These days, people have seen an image of just about anything that exists on Earth, so authors can focus more on story and character.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2009

Best answer: hmmmm "horse galloping on a tomato" conjures up a tiny Clydesdale with white, shaggy feet, running across the top of a gigantic, fully ripe, red tomato with moisture (dew?) sparkling and the stem sticking straight up. "There went a horse galloping down the street on a tomato" becomes a black horse on a deserted road lit only by Victorian-style gas lamps. The horse looks frightened to me-- I believe he is a runaway- and he is smashing a tomato that lying in the middle of the road. I really don't know where that street is or where it comes from.

On the other hand, I am hopeless with people. In real life I never recognize people in movies until they open their mouths and say something. In books, I must skip over the descriptive passages because they are very nebulous in my mind. My husband will say something about the protagonist's mustache, and I will say, "What mustache?"

To give you an example, I am reading The Terror by Dan Simmons, right now, and it is all crystal clear to me-- the ships, the ice, the clothing-- everything except the people. I haven't a clue what Crozier (the main character) looks like-- I've never had a fully formed picture in my head. However, I do notice when a secondary character, John Irving, is mentioned there is always a reference to his handsomeness-- every single time. Dan Simmons is not alone in this, I've seen other authors do this as well. It is as if they have a specific shorthand in mind for reminding the readers of who somebody is and they use it whenever the character appears.

On the other hand, I do retain some broad idea of appearance. Dan Simmons first introduces Capt. Fitzjames by saying he has been called the handsomest man in the Royal Navy yet by the middle of the book, after Fitzjames has lost weight, Crozier remarks that it suits him because his face was too full before. Those two descriptions are hard to reconcile. I usually have a general sense of height, weight, and skin color. Unless, some character has made a point of mentioning or thinking of it, hair color is not something I visualize.

I do not have a specific image of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. He is not particularly tall, short, fat, thin, and I don't have a clear picture of the color of his hair or eyes, but by God, you better not cast somebody young and attractive.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:37 AM on January 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think, as with the poetry angle you mention, you may want to embrace this as your way of reading rather than struggle against it. There's nothing wrong with loving the language of a book.

I think I'm generally pretty good at visualizing. Part of this is maybe how I dream -- I can have fantastically detailed sets in what I call "architectural dreams", such as a Metropolis-like city. But when I read I often feel that I'm just sketching out the important parts, as if the actors are playing on a vast unadorned soundstage but for a few props. That is, I only really visualize the stuff that I need to, guided by the narrative.

You may want to read stuff like Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler^, which is meta-fiction about the act of reading. There is also a good deal of more technical writing about reading as a process, much of it tied to postmodern literary studies, but not all. You could also look at an introduction to literary criticism. There are many ways to experience a book -- there are even a variety just among political approaches. You don't have to "watch" a book like a movie unless you desire to do so.
posted by dhartung at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2009

Secret Life of Gravy: when I read I never pay any attention to the character names. Each time I see them I just recognize the character by the first letter or so and skip it. The odd result is that sometimes I'll be trying to relate the story to someone else, and I can't for the life of me tell them what the main character's name was, only his or her first initial, despite the fact that I've technically read it hundreds of times over the course of the book.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:31 AM on January 29, 2009

Best answer: If your brain privileges language and structure over visuals, then you should definitely give poetry a whirl. It's what this particular brain-model is built for! And dhartung's suggestion that you try some metafiction is a great one. Authors like Lydia Davis, Harry Mathews, Italo Calvino, and Milorad Pavic are all of the language-as-moving-gears rather than language-as-moving-vehicle school, as are slightly plottier authors like Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, and the aforementioned Nicholson Baker.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 10:38 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a graphic designer, and over the years, I have learned that some people visualize better than others. Not a value judgement, just the way they are. I've learned that I cannot always say something like "it would be like this, except red".... since many people cannot substitute red, or another shape etc.

I wonder if you might boost your visual "memory bank" by spending time looking through photography books, or art books, or some other book of imagery. Just look at them to enjoy, not trying memorize etc. Perhaps this would have an impact on how you visualize... exercising your visual imagination, so to speak........?

Another idea would be to create some sort of visual imagination exercise. Lay down, close your eyes, and give yourself a starting point and go from there. Eg. Imagine a castle. Imagine details - setting, style etc. Now put the castle on a moon. Now make everything pink... etc. Sounds wacky, but who knows....?
posted by ecorrocio at 1:11 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:
I do not have a specific image of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. He is not particularly tall, short, fat, thin, and I don't have a clear picture of the color of his hair or eyes, but by God, you better not cast somebody young and attractive.

SL of Gravy: Okay, I can get this. He was described as ugly. I see round about the jaw; brown eyes; (perhaps fetching if Jane really looked into them (surely that was happening unnarrated in the book); dark brown or black hair; a more bent nose, perhaps with a strong bridge. Actually Colin Firth would do well in this part--he is aged enough.
... slightly plottier authors like Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace ...

PRB: These are some of my favorites.
posted by Tufa at 3:45 PM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster:
I think I'm generally pretty good at visualizing. Part of this is maybe how I dream -- I can have fantastically detailed sets in what I call "architectural dreams"
This is so puzzling to me. I have very architectural dreams with detailed, realized landscapes too. I am good at orienteering and have a good spacial memory. (I had the commute to Grandma's house on the Brooklyn Queens Expwy memorized at age four.) ecorrocio, thank you for your suggestions. In waking life I do graphic design! How can I recover this stuff that worked so well when I was asleep or pre-verbal, and get it into books? I will study art books much more. Or maybe R. Crumb. Maybe I should start in black and white.

Who knows, but in any case this has been an AskMe full of thoughtful advice and I thank you for it.
posted by Tufa at 3:51 PM on January 29, 2009

I'll never in a million years find which essay it was among all the hundreds in the many books I own, but: Robert Benchley, an early 20th century humorist I like, had an essay on exactly this same topic. He describes (in a relatively amusing fashion) all the classics he's read and then the homely settings he imagines them in. Quite droll, let me assure you.
posted by DU at 5:21 PM on January 29, 2009

"Mind's Eye Trouble" from The Benchley Roundup.

"Now Worcester, Massachusetts, is a splendid city, with an excellent school system and a wide range of manufacturing interests, but it is not the ideal location for the Song of Roland or the adventures of Ivanhoe. It does not have quite the bucolic atmosphere essential to a complete feeling for the Wessex of Hardy, and, elm-shaded and pleasant though many of its streets are, it is not likely that Hugo had any such place in mind when he wrote Les Miserables. However, regardless of what Hugo had in mind, I have Front Street, Worcester, in my mind when I read it."
posted by ormondsacker at 9:50 PM on January 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Francis Spufford in The Child That Books Built talks about the picture he has in his head of the Radley house from To Kill A Mockingbird and how wrong it is. In trying to work out how he ended up with a mental picture so at odds with the description in the text, he realises that one of the earliest parts of the description has the Finch and Radley properties decribed as 'townhouses' (or possibly just 'houses in the town', I'm afraid I don't have my copy of either book to hand.)

Based off this early information he envisioned the properties as being like the townhouses where he grew up and even when later descriptions in the text flatly contradicted this description, (If you could touch the Radley house from the sidewalk, it shared a wall with the Finch's place and there was no tree outside, the book would have been a lot shorter!) his mental image of it persisted.

I have the same issue. It's not a lack of imagination, so much as an imagination which fires up too early and refuss to backtrack. If a character is mentioned going to church with no further details, I'll visualise a church for them, usually based on a little local church near where I grew up. If, later in the chapter, I find that the church they're visiting is a big grand affair closer to a cathedral, my initial image will often be strong enough to persist in the face of logic.

It dosen't stop me enjoying the books, but it does make for weird mental images sometimes.

The Spufford is an awesome book, btw. Totally recommend it to anbody interested in this sort of thing.
posted by the latin mouse at 10:18 PM on January 29, 2009

A branching-off question: which are the most cinematic writers? In Updike's obituary I read how he thought and wrote his novels visually, in terms of a series of movie scenes.

This is probably going to sound strange, but Faulkner is one of the most cinematic writers for me, in this sense: if you're willing to follow him down his twisty linguistic labyrinths, he tells you exactly what he wants you to see, no more, no less. For me, that's a relief -- I can stop trying to figure out how things are actually supposed to look in my mind's eye, and just let him tell me how they're supposed to look. That's actually quite different than evoking a scene via suggestion or conventional description -- there's a sense in which Faulkner tells you exactly what to imagine and how to imagine it (or not, sometimes he doesn't want you have a clear picture of what's going on). No other author I've ever encountered has ever done this to such a degree.
posted by treepour at 5:42 AM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

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