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The frantic career of the eyes
June 27, 2012 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Picturing Books: What do we see when we read? (Other than words on a page.) What do we picture in our minds? A consideration by Knopf's senior designer Peter Mendulsund.

Bonus: Q&A with Mendelsund and Tom McCarthy.
posted by shakespeherian (22 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was very good.

(Only a very tedious writer would tell you this much about a character.)

Literary characters are physically vague—they have only a few features, and these features don’t matter. Or, these features only matter in that they help narrow a character’s meaning


After reading the first of these lines, I was going to say something like the final sentence here. You should only describe physical features that will sketch in the behavior and personality of your character. "Green eyes and thick wavy hair" tells me "generic romance novel character". (And "Joanne looked in the mirror and saw..." descriptions let me know I'm reading a book about an idiot.)

(Nabokov also used to map novels)

I've been reading a few old classics to the kids recently and I frequently notice some textual evidence, previously overlooked I guess, that doesn't jibe with my long-time mental image of the place. Which leads me to wish we (the kids and I) could somehow compare mental notes on what we think the geography (or physiology too I guess) looks like. Mapping's not a bad idea.
posted by DU at 11:32 AM on June 27, 2012


Sometimes when I'm reading I will randomly realize I'm reading, rather than like, watching a mental movie. It will then take me a few minutes to fall back into the book.
posted by Malice at 11:43 AM on June 27, 2012


You guys see mental movies? I hear someone reading it to me. I started reading the linked article but I started worrying I was doing it wrong. How do I know if I am reading correctly?
posted by Ad hominem at 11:59 AM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read aloud (Harry Potter) to my youngest daughter. I read this passage to her the other night:

Then Harry heard a scream…
“…aaaaargh!”
The noise was coming from a corridor nearby.

When I performed that scream for my daughter, it was in an uninflected, neutral voice—Not because I can’t act (I can’t), but because I didn’t yet know which character was screaming. When I learned, further down the page, that the screamer was dotty Professor Trewlawny, my daughter made me go back and read the passage again—this time with a high, loopy, female voice appropriate to the character…

Love this. Thank you.
posted by mykescipark at 12:06 PM on June 27, 2012


Feinman observed in one of his memoirs that, when counting silently in their heads, some people "hear" someone counting off, while other people "see", among other things, a physical ticker-tape of numbers scrolling by. I think that these two general kinds of visualization apply to reading as well. I "hear" someone reading in my head the same way Ad hominem does; I don't really "see" novels like they are movies.

I do almost place myself in the action, in a strange way, and I can get turned around if something isn't described thoroughly and somehow the gun I thought I was holding in my right hand gets fired with my left, or something.
posted by muddgirl at 12:10 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I read, I routinely imagine the cartoon adaptation of the story, not the live-action one. It's normal for cartoon characters to change appearances from scene to scene, either from poor production values or because that's the shape their head needed to be in order to pull off that particular facial expression. Less cognitive dissonance, this way.

Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read.

When the writers reduce, they are reducing their concept of the story into words. When the readers reduce, they are reducing the words into...

I think "reduce" is not quite the right verb here.

Reading a novel, we tell ourselves, is like watching a movie. Remembering a song is like sitting in an audience. If I say the word “onion” you are transported— as if smelling an onion all over again. It bothers people to suggest that this isn’t the case.

This doesn't reflect my experience at all. But then I'm the kind of guy who doesn't go to concerts if I don't expect to talk to the band or get some really elaborate choreography or something, because otherwise I might as well listen to the album.

That is to say: every narrative is meant to be transposed; visually translated. It is ours.

Be careful with that word "every," dude. Some people prefer movies because irrelevant details of the characters' appearances have been resolved for them.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:13 PM on June 27, 2012


You guys see mental movies? I hear someone reading it to me.

Same here. Or, more precisely, I hear the individual characters reading their lines.
I suppose I also envision things, but it's in that deep, subconscious way where the mind "sees" things, but doesn't literally see images. Hard to explain, I suppose.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:14 PM on June 27, 2012


I wish I saw these movies but I'm interested in how people visualize text that is not description or dialog. What do you see when you read a math book? How about a philosophical book on abstract ideas. How do you visualize something like Descartes method of doubt.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:38 PM on June 27, 2012


I frequently notice some textual evidence, previously overlooked I guess, that doesn't jibe with my long-time mental image of the place

I hate when this happens!

Recently I've been reading a lot of books set in the same region and I realized a while back that I have been recycling a lot of the same mental images for settings described in the book. I think I end up not entirely processing the author's descriptions of the new places because I am so stuck in the ones I imagined for the last book.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 12:43 PM on June 27, 2012


I think I end up not entirely processing the author's descriptions of the new places because I am so stuck in the ones I imagined for the last book.

I do this a lot. As a kid, I often pictured the locations described as some alternate version of my house, even if that didn't make a lot of sense.
posted by asnider at 1:22 PM on June 27, 2012


Literary characters are physically vague—they have only a few features, and these features don’t matter. Or, these features only matter in that they help narrow a character’s meaning. But these features don’t help us picture a character. Characters are ciphers. And narratives are made richer by omission.

This is why I thought that the criticism of people who didn't realize that Rue from the Hunger Games was black until the movie posters were released was overblown. (Now, if you were disappointed and upset that she was black, that's another issue.) Her dark skin is mentioned only in passing, whereas great emphasis is placed on her resemblance to Katniss' younger sister, who is blonde and fair. It's completely understandable that the part of the description that made a difference to her character got lodged firmly in people's minds, while the part that was entirely inconsequential didn't. Now, that's not high literature--I didn't even think it was good YA--but I think it shows that many, if not most of us as readers aren't making mental movies. I'm an avid reader, and I carry very few images with me. My experience is reading is much closer to listening to a story than watching a film. I picture something if it seems to be important to the author that I get an image of it, otherwise I follow along for understanding, but without clear images.
posted by Alexander Hatchell at 2:02 PM on June 27, 2012


If the character's appearance is in fact unimportant, then I don't understand how it's "theft" when a movie provides an appearance for them.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:36 PM on June 27, 2012


Because the movie nails down the look of something and deprives the reader their own mental image of something. Sometimes a painting can be more vivid, more evocative, than a photograph. A painter can show you what to look at, and how to look at it.

From the first link: "We fill in lacunae. We shade them. We gloss over them. We elide. . . . Anna: her hair, her weight: These are facets only, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color"

There is some power in vagueness.
posted by quosimosaur at 7:52 PM on June 27, 2012


I don't think that's actually a power that films lack. The easy example is cartoons. Actors, too, routinely wear gobs of makeup to the point where lots of people are unaware that Angelina Jolie has tattoos. If you want to use that to effect a vagueness of appearance, I guess you need to avoid certain types of shot, or else use video filters.

Anyway, your quote doesn't really answer my question. We elide these things when we read, yes. And when we watch? I don't remember what eye color Leo DiCaprio has. I wasn't paying attention to that in any of his movies. And if I did? Then the movie is filling in a detail that I wasn't imagining in the first place. If the character isn't her hair or weight, then giving her hair and weight doesn't change anything.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:00 PM on June 27, 2012


Then the movie is filling in a detail that I wasn't imagining in the first place. If the character isn't her hair or weight, then giving her hair and weight doesn't change anything.

It does change something for me. When I read, I feel like I'm personally making the story; it's a feeling that is markedly different to the experience of watching a movie or looking at a photo. It's almost as if I'm the author of the story. A film adaption undermines the authorial control I have over a text.
posted by quosimosaur at 9:52 PM on June 27, 2012


I've always liked the combination of blurry and precise mental imagery that I get when I read, but I always thought I was a weirdo for that, because so many people talk about their Precise Mental Images of characters.

Because when I read, I find I often have a clearer picture of what a character doesn't look like than what he does, plus a few details that the author comes back to. For example, I always knew that Aragorn was tall and rangy, and I probably could have described his travelling cloak pretty precisely even before the movie, but I couldn't have told you what his face looked like. It's like hanging out with a camera as you adjust the focus: sometimes everything becomes crystal clear, and sometimes only pieces (like someone's hands) are clear, and of course, sometimes nothing is terribly clear. And because the setting is often harder for me to imagine than the characters, at regular intervals in a book the characters just end up hanging out somewhere blurry: like they're standing in the middle of a dream or a deep fog. They don't get transposed into a familiar setting. They just kind of hang out in the fog until the setting crystallizes again.

This happens too when the heroes are dealing with a monster or an complex piece of machinery. You'd never see a movie where the monster was standing center-stage but still only vaguely outlined, but that's the way it works for me a lot of times in books. For example, I've listened to all of Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon books because David Tennant narrates them, but I regularly cannot imagine the dragons she's trying to describe. So I just make up my own version or let them remain fuzzy: big and scary, but otherwise not defined. Complicated made-up machines in movies also startle me sometimes, because they're so concrete: characters don't just ghost through them, doing hard-to-see things with their hands.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that reading and dreaming for me are not that different. In both cases, reality just slides around without me being terribly bothered by it.
posted by colfax at 3:43 AM on June 28, 2012


...gobs of makeup to the point where lots of people are unaware that Angelina Jolie has tattoos...

That's not vagueness. That's dishonest definiteness.

Here's a definite statement: I ate a cookie after school.
Here's a definite, but dishonest, statement: I ate an apple after school.
Here's a vague statement: I had a snack after school.

Showing a picture of a person's arms without tattoos makes an explicit, positive, definite statement about their lack of tattoos even if that statement is a lie.

If the character isn't her hair or weight, then giving her hair and weight doesn't change anything.

I disagree. I think this a lot when I see some "empowering" (or whatever) book come out as a movie. Sure, a lot more people will see it. But the power of the original book is often that you can imagine it as a story about yourself. It's harder to step into the shoes of a definitely depicted person than for a vague one.
posted by DU at 5:42 AM on June 28, 2012


DU, do you consider cartoon characters to be dishonestly definite? Overly made-up actors appear to me to have a similar lack of skin texture, blemish, wrinkle, and so-on to your average anime prettyboy, which I think is the point. In cartoons this is held--by Scott McCloud at least--to be a form of vagueness, whereby we see that Clark Kent is fit but not beefy, got black or darkbrown hair, something like a crew cut, big chin, glasses... uh, he's white but not pale... millions of people fit that description, and millions of people look "just like" Superman from the comic books. Likewise it's pretty easy to find celebrity resemblances among your friends, considerably more difficult to find resemblances to other of your friends.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:37 AM on June 28, 2012


I don't think "broad" is the same as "indefinite" although there is some overlap.
posted by DU at 6:43 AM on June 28, 2012


If the character's appearance is in fact unimportant, then I don't understand how it's "theft" when a movie provides an appearance for them.

Part of the point of the linked article, as I read it, is that the act of reading is a performative act, an act of continual re-creation, of sketching and editing in your mind-- not just characters' appearances, but geographies, schematics, bits of machinery, monsters, etc., and that this is one of the essential elements of why the written word is a unique artform. Going to see Robert Redford as Gatsby before you read The Great Gatsby, the author posits, robs you of much of this exploration and continual discovery and co-creation when you read the book, because a big bit of your brain is now just going to slot in Robert Redford's face in every scene.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:02 AM on June 28, 2012


It strikes me that the use of visualization exercises in meditation has something relevant to teach us here. When you try to visualize a complex object in all its detail simultaneously, you quickly realize that it's really hard, and that this isn't the way you're used to visualizing things. Normally, you just focus on whatever aspect you're concerned with at the moment, and since you can shift your attention to other aspects at will, that's good enough for most practical purposes. When reading descriptive prose, the same thing happens, except that your attention is guided by the author.

Speaking personally, I'm comfortable enough with abstraction that I often don't visualize characters at all. Even if the text describes someone as having a big nose, I'm more likely to just understand it as belonging to the category of big noses than to imagine a specific big nose. It depends on the text, though. Some writers are more specifically visual than others.
posted by baf at 11:58 AM on June 28, 2012


Ad hominem: "8I wish I saw these movies but I'm interested in how people visualize text that is not description or dialog. What do you see when you read a math book? How about a philosophical book on abstract ideas. How do you visualize something like Descartes method of doubt."

Metaphors. I can't even begin to describe this without sounding cheesy and poetic, which is not what I do at all (or so I don't think). It's more like I have all these mental shortcuts to describe states and processes and I tie the abstract concepts to several of them at once. So a mathematical formula can be like a car on a road and water dripping into down a drain and the way a cup rolls and a rubber band snap and a galaxy expanding and whatever else I need it to be. And that gets locked into my head as the car-drip-cup-band-galaxy thing. It can't be any one embodied metaphor because if one metaphor perfectly matched the abstract concept, it would cease to be the metaphor and it would be the thing itself. So you need lots of metaphors to explain all the different dimensions of the thing you're mapping.

Somehow it all makes sense to me. In there.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:17 AM on June 29, 2012


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