More than once, readers have told me that my novels are “cinematic.” They mean that my books create mental images so vivid that scenes scroll by in their minds as if on a movie screen. I take this as a major compliment. I work hard to turn words into that mental imagery. It’s a skill I learned after a friend read an early piece of my fiction and said that many pages had no visual imagery at all. Oops.
Whenever I read a terrific book — fiction or nonfiction — the story comes to life visually in my mind. And until recently, I assumed that this is the way it works for everybody. Not so.
Recently I spoke to a man about fiction. He said — like many, many men have said to me — “I’m not into novels. My wife’s the reader.” This always saddens me, but no longer surprises. What he said next, however, did. “She says when she reads a novel, she sees the story in her mind. Can you believe that?”
I said, “You don’t?”
“Never. I’m taking a college English class, and I get good grades because I can memorize the text and answer questions about it. But I never see anything except the ink on the page.”
I thought: No wonder novels don’t appeal to you.
I wondered if anybody else sees only the text, nothing behind it. Apparently so — and more.
Certain people, researchers have discovered, can’t summon up mental images — it’s as if their mind’s eye is blind. This month in the journal Cortex, the condition received a name: aphantasia, based on the Greek word phantasia, which Aristotle used to describe the power that presents visual imagery to our minds.
How about you all? When you read — or think — can you conjure mental pictures?