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What I See When I Read

Tiffani Willis

Staff Writer

Tiffani C. Willis spends as much as time as she is able to traveling the universe by book and sometimes by, plane, train, boat, or car. When she’s not off on an adventure in a faraway land or trying to solve a mystery like a detective, Tiffani uses her powers as an academic librarian to help students survive school as they learn how to do research and write research papers. She spends her spare time rambling, raving, and ranting about books on her blog Passport Books, camping out in bookstores, and obsessively watching HGTV, usually with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine nearby. Twitter: @PassportBooks

In a recent post fellow Book Riot contributor James Wallace Harris asked what do you see when you read? Mr. Harris learned that he had aphantasia or mind blindness and as a consequence doesn’t see anything when he reads but words on a page. While I have never assumed that we all saw the same thing, I did assume that everyone saw something. Since learning that is not the case, I haven’t stopped thinking about what exactly it is I see, and don’t see, when I read.

Actions and settings appear the most clearly and vividly. A glance at my Goodreads read list immediately brings to mind images of where parts of a story took place or events that occurred. With Binti that image was of the launch port where Binti goes to board the ship that will take her to her university. I pictured her hair and the hands of random people touching it. The Secret Place brought to mind the bedroom Holly and her three best friends share at boarding school. Folding Beijing sparked images of gears moving as the city folds to reveal another side of itself. I cannot think of The Sugar Queen without seeing books magically pile up next to a woman, something that happens to one of the characters whenever she has a problem.

Setting has always been a big draw for me. I enjoy learning how life works elsewhere, whether elsewhere is real or fictional. Setting can help anchor a story and make it feel more real. I read Dani Pettrey’s Alaskan Courage series in part because of descriptions of the Alaskan landscape. Of course the images in my head are filled in by things I already know. I have been to Paris and so it is easy to picture Allyson and Willem’s day in Just One Day. On the flip side, an inability to picture the setting can affect my enjoyment of a story. The Ice Princess didn’t totally work for me because I couldn’t get a good picture of the seaside village in which the story takes place.

Picturing the story aids in my reading comprehension. This is particularly true with action sequences or anything technical. If I can’t picture what a character is doing or what is happening I can get confused. Stories heavy on fast moving action sometimes confound me. Similarly, because STEM subjects are not my strongest suit, stories heavy on actual science also confound me. Both force me to read slower and think carefully about what is actually happening in the story.

So settings and actions I can see but faces are hard. Rarely can I put together a whole picture of a face based solely on a description. I can picture the individual pieces an author describes but it never quite comes together in my mind. Either the face is a blur or I resort to picturing a person I’ve seen before. This may be because I don’t often think of people’s actual faces in real life either. Seriously I would make a terrible witness. I could tell you if someone was taller or shorter than me and their hair’s color, length, and texture. Don’t ask me to tell you the color of their eyes or the shape of their nose. Those kind of details tend not register with me. I could more easily describe what they were wearing or how they were moving, but their face not so much.

Being able to picture what I’m reading has its drawbacks. It is probably one of the reasons why the horror genre is so difficult for me. Every knife slicing through flesh and bloody corpse floats before my eyes. Years ago I picked up A Clockwork Orange with the intention of reading it then watching Stanley Kubrick’s movie. After reading the book I couldn’t stomach seeing any more and to this day, have never seen the movie.

I wonder if personality traits and memory have any connection to the ability to visualize a story. Introverts are often accused of being in their head too much. Are their visualizations more vivid?  I consider myself an introvert and think my visualizations are pretty vivid. What do extroverts see? Does having an eidetic memory make it easier, harder, or have no effect at all on the ability to visualize a story as one reads? What do you think? More importantly (and interestingly), what do you see?