Visual Readers and Memorable Scenes


One of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made about reading (and writing) is how our brains process text. Some of us are intensely visual. This is both great and not so great.

The perils and pitfalls of being a visual reader are similar to those of the visual writer. One of the most obvious pitfalls is that one remembers only the images, not the words. So, for example, someone asks for a recommendation, and you want to suggest this terrific book you read a few years ago—you can remember the color of the cover, and where it sits on the shelf, but you can’t remember the title or author.

If you’re trying to describe this book to others as you desperately cudgel your memory, their eyes glaze over into catatonia as you babble, “No, wait, I’ll get it, I can see where I sat when I read it, and the chocolate chip cookie I dropped when I hit this certain part—I can even see the page! Where, well, it’d be a spoiler, but . . .”

The plus side of being a visual reader of course is the intensely vivid movie you get in your head from descriptive passages in books.

This is not a new phenomenon.

For years I nodded and passed on as I read Victorian memoirs and letters, many of which would mention Bulwer-Lytton (very popular all through the 19th century), and how most of The Last Days of Pompeii was forgettable except for the very end when the volcano erupted. Reading it over a century later, I’d agreed 100%.

A few years ago, after I’d begun studying how we process text (both as readers and writers) I thought I ought to reread it if I can find a copy, because I suspect what I might find: for most of the book, lots of Victorian melodrama and speechifying, the life of the characters never really in focus as I don’t think Bulwer-Lytton was a Roman scholar and knew how they lived. But when he got to the volcano explosion, the story shifted into vivid, intense description, and the emotion felt real, as opposed to standard melodramatic tropes of the time.

There are other books that I remember similarly: most of it forgotten except for one or two really vivid scenes, their emotional impact high for whatever reason. Like, when I first read Les Miserables in translation as a teen, I came away with vivid memories of the chase through the Parisian sewers, but not much else.

Another that stayed with me intensely was the prison break scene in The Count of Monte Cristo. I read all thousand-plus pages as a twelve-year old, but that scene stuck with me for decades.

Tom Sawyer was vivid pretty much all the way through, but the funeral scene that the boys watched stayed with me, whereas many have said that for them it was the fence-painting scene. It was not just Twain’s descriptive power, it was the emotional rollercoaster of the scene, from pathos to hilarity and back again. The other two I mentioned were high stakes chases, so the emotional component was there.

“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in Wind in the Willows hit me with an intensity that made slogging through the rest of the book worth it, though I never reread it after that one experience about age ten. My visual sense was torqued too strongly, and I couldn’t make visual sense of the whimsy, for example, how did animal mouths produce words, did the toad have a tiny car or a human car, and how could a toad drive? You get the idea.

One of my favorite books that has many visually and emotionally satisfying scenes is Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, but my favorite is when a vision of Horry’s ancestor emerges out of the fire and grins at her.

I recently blogged my reread of Lord of the Rings, naming many vivid and emotionally effective scenes, but one of the scenes that has lingered in its intensity all the decades I’ve been rereading the trilogy is not the huge battle or magic scenes, though I love them all, but a very small scene with immense emotional impact: when Gollum creeps back to see Sam and Frodo asleep side by side, at the very gates of Mordor.

How about you? Is there a single scene in a book that you’ve always remembered—or how about the most memorable scene among many?



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