There’s a well-known saying: “I prefer radio to television. The pictures are better.” I would say the same goes for reading, perhaps even more so. When I’m reading a book I am seeing the events unfold in front of my eyes, hearing them too – immersed in the world of the story. It’s so engrossing because it’s an active involvement – I’m creating the scenes, directing the action according to the script of the book. In contrast watching television is a very passive activity – just sit back and absorb somebody else’s vision. That is one reason I often find television to be far less engaging.
Don’t get me wrong – I watch some television, probably more sports and news than anything else. I watch movies and enjoy some of them, even those like Master and Commander where there is plenty of scope for disappointment because I’m familiar with the books on which they were based. I don’t much like going to the cinema – it’s because being in a strange environment among a crowd of unfamiliar people makes me uncomfortable, but I occasionally watch movies at home. Occasionally as in once or twice a month, if that. Reading, on the other hand, is something I do every day.
Opening a book is like opening a door to a different world, one where anything might be possible. Yes, it is blatant escapism – that’s rather the point of it for me. The real world is often badly-adjusted for my sensory and cognitive needs. But when I’m in one of the worlds that I enter through the pages of a book I am in full control of my experiences: I create – imagine – all the sensations I experience in there. I know it’s not real and that’s part of its attraction – I know there’s nothing in that world that can hurt me. Provoke various emotions, yes – excitement, pleasure, sadness, apprehension – but not actually hurt me. It’s a safe environment in which to feel those emotions.
As I read the story I progressively refine my mental image of the setting, starting with a fairly generic off-the-peg one and adding new details, altering existing ones, until what I have in mind meshes with my interpretation of the descriptions in the book. I borrow elements from the props cupboard of my existing memories, tweak them a little and introduce them to the building scene. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned once or twice in previous posts I have trouble when it comes to picturing faces. So the characters in my mental worlds are almost faceless – there’s no detail to their features. I don’t find this remarkable or unusual because I am exactly the same with my memories of people in real life.
If I make a conscious effort I can imagine facial details in isolation – like elements of a photo-fit that has been taken apart. A scar on a cheek, green eyes, aquiline nose, swarthy complexion – I can see each of them in turn but can’t fit them together to produce a single image of a face. I recall details of the faces of people I know in the same way – as collections of isolated features. But I can’t generally picture a complete visage. It’s as if the whole face is out of focus and the only way I can discern detail is to concentrate on just a part of it.
I find it ironic in a way – here I am with my wonderful visual mode of thinking and my almost-photographic memory of places I’ve been… and I can’t even clearly recall the faces of most of my work colleagues whom I see almost every day, let alone invent faces to populate the worlds of my books.