Picturing Books


What do we see when we read? (Other than words on a page.) What do we picture in our minds?


Strangely, when we remember the experience of reading a book, we imagine a continuous unfolding of images. We imagine, in essence, that the experience of reading was like that of watching a film. For instance I remember reading Anna Karenina: “I saw Oblonsky, and then I saw Oblonsky’s house, and then I saw this, and then that…”

But this is not what actually happens.

If I said to you “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty … if you were reading closely you’d mention her weight, or maybe even her little mustache (yes. It’s there). Mathew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes…” But what does Anna Karenina look like? You may feel intimate with a character (people like to say of a brilliantly limned character: “it’s like I know her) but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.


Real visualizing requires will.

Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly), provide us, readers, with more behavior for their characters than character description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (author’s can’t tell us everything). 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 … But what does she look like? We don’t know. (Our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.)


When I ask people if they can clearly imagine their favorite characters, they say that, yes, of course they can. These characters are, in the minds of these readers: “bodied forth (to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase). Some readers go further, and suggest that the only way they can enjoy a novel is if the main players are easily visible:

“Can you picture, in your mind, what she looks like now for me,” I ask.

“Sure,” they say, “As if she was standing here in front of me.”
“What does her nose look like?”
 “I hadn’t thought it out; but now that I think of it, this would be the kind of person who would have a nose like…”
“But wait–How did you picture her before I asked? Nose-less?”
“Does she have a heavy brow; what kind of hair cut does she have; where does she hold her body fat; does she slouch; does she have laugh-lines…”

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

Some readers swear to me they can picture these characters perfectly while they are reading. I doubt this, but I wonder now if our images of characters are vague because our visual memories are vague in general.

A thought experiment: Picture your mother; now picture your favorite literary character. (Or: picture your home. Then picture Howard’s End.) The difference between your mother’s after-image and that of a literary character you love, is that the more you concentrate, the more your mother might come into focus. A character will not reveal herself. In fact the closer you look, the farther away she gets.

(This is a relief, actually. When I impose a real visage on a fictional character, the effect isn’t one of recognition, but dissonance. I end up imagining someone I know. And then I think: that isn’t Anna!)


Often, when readers are asked to describe what the key characters from their favorite books look like; they describe how a character moves through space.

One reader, on Benjy Compson from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

“Lumbering, uncoordinated…”

But what does he look like? 


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.

William Gass, on Mr. Cashmore from Henry James’s The Awkward Age:

“We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr. Cashmore added… now the question is: what is Mr. Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr. Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organization, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.”

The same could be said of any character- of Nanda, from the same book, or of Anna Karenina. Of course—isn’t it more important that Anna loves Vronsky and feels trapped in her marriage? Isn’t more important that Nanda recognizes the corruption of her mother’s social circle? It is how characters are, in relation to everyone and everything in their fictional, circumscribed world, that ultimately matters. (“Lumbering, uncoordinated…”)

Characters are like a set of rules which determine a particular outcome.

(((Anna & Young/Pretty) & (Karenin & Old/Ugly)) Vronksy) (Vronsky Train) ¬ (Anna & Karenin Train)))


“Call me Ishmael.” What happens when you read this line? You are being addressed, but by whom? Chances are you hear the line (in your mind’s ear) before you picture the speaker. I can hear Ishmael’s words more clearly than I can see his face. (Audition requires different neurological processes than vision, or smell. And I would submit that we hear more when we read than we see). Picturing Ishmael requires a strong resolve.

But if you indeed took the trouble to summon an image of Ishmael what did you come up with? A sea-faring man of some sort? Is this a picture or a category? Do you picture Richard Basehart, the actor in the John Huston adaptation? How disappointing.

(One should only watch a film adaptation of a favorite book after considering, very carefully, that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind. This is a very real hazard.)


What color is your Ishmael’s hair? Is it curly or straight? Is he taller than you? If you don’t picture him clearly, do you merely set aside a chit, a placeholder, that says on it “Protagonist, narrator—first person?” Maybe this is enough. Ishamel probably evokes a feeling in you—but this is not the same as seeing him.

Maybe Melville had a specific image in mind for his Ishmael. Maybe Ishmael looked like someone he knew from his years at sea. Melville’s image is not ours though. And no matter how well illustrated Ishmael may be (I can’t remember if Melville describes Ishmael’s physical attributes and I’ve read the book three times) chances are we will have to be constantly revising our image of him as the book progresses. He is not one picture but many. We are ever reviewing and reconsidering our mental portraits of characters in novels: amending them, backtracking to check on them, updating them when new information arises…

What kind of face you assign to Ishmael might depend upon what mood you are in on a particular day. Ishmael might look as different from one chapter to the next as, say, Tashtego does from Stubb.

(Sometimes, in a play, several actors might play a single role. When we sit in an audience watching such a play, the cognitive dissonance the multiple actors arouse is evident to us. But not when we are reading. We still think back on the experience as featuring a single actor.)


Emma Bovary’s eye color, famously, changes during the course of the novel, Madame Bovary. Blue, brown, deep black… Does this matter? How?



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

Then Harry heard a scream…
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…

This is the process through which we visualize characters. We start thinking of them one way—and then lo, fifty pages later we find out they are different from our mental placeholder in some crucial way.


I am just finishing Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse—a masterpiece of literary phenomenology that is exemplary for, among other merits, its close descriptions of sensory and psychological experience. The raw material of this book isn’t as much character, place, and plot, as sense-data.

 The book opens thus:

“’Yes, or course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsey.”

I imagine these words echoing in a void. Who is Mrs. Ramsey? Where is she? She is speaking to someone. Two faceless people in a void. As I read on she becomes a collage, composed of clippings, like the clippings in her son James’ book.

She is also:

{Mother[Female(Human character)]}

She is all of these things. She is compound.


Mrs. Ramsey is speaking to her son, we are told. Is she, perhaps, seventy—and he fifty? No, we learn that he is only six. Revisions are made. And so on. Fiction is linear (even non-linear fiction) so we must learn to wait, if we are to picture correctly. But we don’t wait. We believe that we are imaging accurately from the get-go: immediately upon beginning a book.

(When we remember reading books, we don’t remember having made these constant little adjustments. We remember watching the movie)


When we read, it is important that we believe that we are seeing everything.

When I play the piano (as opposed to when I am listening to piano music) I don’t hear my mistakes. My mind is too busy idealizing the music to heed to the moment; to hear what is actually emanating from the instrument. In this sense, the performative aspects of playing the piano inhibit my ability to hear. Similarly, when we read, we imagine that we see


The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Grammar, writes:

“…We do sometimes see memory pictures in our minds: but commonly they are only scattered through the memory like illustrations in a story book.”

This sounds right to me, and can apply to imaging whilst reading as well—though I have two questions:

What do these “illustrations” look like?

And also:

What do we see during the un-illustrated part of the story?


To say fiction is linear is not to say we read in a straight line.  "The frantic career of the eyes,” is how Proust described reading. The eye jumps around. If you are a fast reader, and therefore comfortable recognizing where, in a block of text, the information you are looking for lives, you hop backwards and forwards through books. If you are scanning, you can scan for characters and their physical attributes. You could read a book for only these things. (If we read this way, if we excised all but the corporeal details, wouldn’t we miss everything?)


Some people actually sketch as they read in an attempt to clarify, stabilize and make fast what they know about the appearances of people or places in a book. Nabokov did this. Here’s his Gregor Samsa:

Does sketching help us picture? The leap from sketch to focused image is an enormous leap. Perhaps what we see when we read are, in fact, sketches. Perhaps sketchiness is a crucial component of why we love written stories.


Do stories and their native inhabitants seem sketchy because we are bad at imagining? Maybe the muscles we use to imagine are growing weaker as our culture ages. Before the age of photography and film did we picture better, more clearly, than we do now? I know our mnemonic skills are atrophying (we in the developed world: drowning in The Image, as we are)—our visual creativity might be as well. The fact of our culture’s visual overstimulation is widely discussed, and the conclusions drawn from the fact of this overstimulation are alarming (our imaginations are dying, some say). Whatever the relative health of our imaginations may be, we (technologically over-stimulated children and adults alike) still read. The rapid proliferation of the image in our lives has not kept us from the written word. On the contrary- we turn to books in record number. And we read because books bestow upon us unique pleasures; pleasures which films, television etc. cannot proffer.

To whit: books allow us certain freedoms—we are free to be mentally active when we read as we are full participants in the making of (imagining of) a narrative.

We desire the fluidity, and vagary that books grant us when imagining their content. Some things we do not wish to be shown.

(To those who say they have a clear image of their favorite characters in their minds' eye when they read—I say, why did you read the book then? You could have gone to a movie...)


We want ownership; and we want to participate.

"Indeed, it is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books,” Proust remarks, in his book on reading (or, more properly, his book on Ruskin on reading) … that…for the author they may be called 'conclusions' but for the reader 'Incitements'."

Good books incite us towards imagining- towards filling in an author’s suggestions. Without this co-creative act; without personalization, what you are left with is:

Here is your Anna—Happy?

This—the above— is a form of robbery.


Ernst Gombrich tells us that, in viewing art, there is no “innocent eye.” There is no such thing in art as the naïve reception of imagery. What we see is our own pre-dispositions. This is obviously true of reading as well.

Co-creation and Barthes’ “Removal of the author:”

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.

The reader is … simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.

The end of the author describes not only the end of the hegemony of authorial “meaning,” but also an end to the passive imagination, and the paradigm of the reader’s submissive reception of imagery.


To go further: every human sensory event is reception and generation.


Mise en scene: To The Lighthouse takes place at a house in the Hebrides. If you asked me to describe the house, I could tell you some of its features. But much like my mental picture of Anna Karenina, the house is a shutter here, a dormer there.

(There’s nothing to keep the rain out! Now I picture a roof. I still don’t know if it’s slate or shingle. Shingle. I’ve decided.)

I know that, on the Ramsey’s property there is a garden, and a hedge. A view of the ocean; the lighthouse… I know the rough placements of the characters on this stage. I have mapped the surroundings, but mapping isn’t exactly picturing—not in the sense of recreating the world, as it appears to us, visually.

(Nabokov also used to map novels)

I do this too on occasion. I’ve mapped To the Lighthouse.

But I can’t describe the Ramseys’ house.

Like maps, our visions of fictional settings are there to perform a function. A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture—a picture of what the wedding reception will look like—it is a set of rules, governing our actions. And the Ramsey house is no different. It governs the actions of its occupants. William Gass again:

“We do visualize, I suppose. Where did I leave my gloves? And then I ransack the room in my mind until I find them. But the room I ransack is abstract—a simple schema…and I think of the room as a set of likely glove locations…”

The Ramsey house is a set of likely Ramsey locations.


Of course, the more I know of the world (its history, its geography…) the closer I get to achieving what we think of as “the author’s view of things.” The more I know, the more I am able to image Mrs. Ramsey’s drawing room, dining room, with some degree of verisimilitude. I might have visited the Hebrides or read other books that describe the islands. I might have seen illustrations and photographs of period dress, interior décor, and perhaps have learned something of Victorian mores…

Perhaps the author’s image of this setting is based on some real-world locale that we ourselves can simply look at a photograph or painting of? Is this house, the setting for TTLH based on one of the Woolf’s? I am tempted to look up this information (like another friend of mine did when he read TTLH). It would be a simple matter to find a picture of the Isle of Skye lighthouse. But would this deprive me of something? I would gain in authenticity what I’d lose in personal intimacy. (For me, the Ramsey’s summerhouse, filled with guests, is like the rough-and-tumble, rowdy houses my family rents during summers on Cape Cod. This image of the Cape is grounding image for me. It allows me to relate to the book.) My friend was going to describe the Woolf’s Hebridean House to me and I stopped him. My Ramsey house, is a feeling, not a picture. And I wish to preserve this feeling.

Well maybe the house is not only a feeling, but the feeling has primacy over the image.

(The idea of the house, and the feelings it evokes in me are the nucleus of a complex atom, around which orbit various sounds, fleeting images and an entire ecology of personal associations.)

These images we “see” when we read are personal: What we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: every narrative is meant to be transposed; visually translated. It is ours.

A friend grew up in suburban Albany. He’s always been an avid reader, even as a child, and whenever he would read he tells me he would mentally situate the stories in the backyards and side streets of his native blocks—having no other frame of reference. I did this too. For me, the settings for most books I read was Cambridge Massachusetts, where I grew up. My mental images of other locations, when I was young, were always a bit hazy by virtue of my youth and lack of experience and travel. So the stage, in my mind’s eye, for all of these epic encounters, for Jean Christophe, and, say, Anna Karenina, or Moby Dick, was a local public school; my neighbor’s backyard . . . It seems strange, funny even, to think of these grand sagas re-cast in this prosaic light. These various far-flung adventures, press-ganged, by force of will, onto such blasé and un-romantic settings. Yet, my personal readings of these books were undiminished by radical changes of milieu—by this personalizing of the reading experience. My friend and I were doing, to some extent, what we all do when we sit down to read a work of fiction.

We colonize books with our familiars, and we exile, repatriate the characters to lands we are more acquainted with.


As I’ve mentioned, the assumption that we are seeing what an author intended us to, is a weaker assumption when reading plays. Hamlet is ours to picture as we’d like, as he might be played by a different actor in every new production produced. We do not refer to Hamlet as a character as much as a role. He is clearly meant to be inhabited: played. (And Denmark is a set. It can be anywhere the director and stage designer imagine it to be.)

(I remember once seeing Hamlet performed by teens in a high school gymnasium.)

Why are novels or short stories any different? Reading means producing a private play of sorts. Reading is casting, set decoration, direction, stage management…

Importantly: all of these choices—these transpositions we choose when reading— work. They work for us because books do not tender precise images, sounds or smells. Books, like plays, present ideas, and the juxtaposition of ideas. It is the interaction of ideas that catalyzes feeling in us readers.


It should be mentioned that there are moments, when we read, when all we see are words. What we are looking at when we read are words, made up of letterforms, but we are trained to see past them—at what the words and letterforms point towards. Words are like arrows—they are something, and they point towards something.

Words are transparent to us because of their structure and purpose (they are signifiers) but also because the practice of reading is habitual. We have seen the “arrow” enough that we only look in the direction indicated.


A point of interest: the books that make the act of reading feel foreign, and non-habitual, are not the books in which imaging is most difficult. Or, that is, when we read difficult books, with non-traditional narrative structures, we still imagine that we see.


Arrows: It is not only the letterforms which are arrows when we read. Sentences are also arrows, and paragraphs and chapters are arrows. Whole novels are arrows.

To read is to:

Look through; Look past; and to look, myopically, hopefully, towards…

There is, in fact, very little looking at.


More often than not we don’t have any pictures in our minds at all when we read. Sometimes when we read, though we may think we are picturing things, we are, in fact experiencing the play of abstract relationships. (This sounds like a fairly un-enjoyable experience, but, in truth, this is also what we do when we listen to music. This relational, non-representational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things—but in the play of elements…)

When you listen to music, non-programmatic music—Bach say—is what you feel lessened in any way by the lack of imagery put forward? You may imagine anything when listening to Bach: a stream, a tree, a sewing machine, your spouse…but there is nothing in the music that demands those specific images. (it is far better without them!)

Disney's Fantasia

Why is it different when we read a novel? Because some detail, some specific imagery is called out? This specificity changes things, but, I think, only superficially.


When reading To the Lighthouse you come across this sentence:

“…While it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds…”

Can you smell this odor? When I read this passaged I imagined I did. Of course what I was “smelling” was the idea of a smell. Not something visceral like a real smell. Can we imagine smells? I posed this question to a neuroscientist, an expert in how the brain constructs “smell”:

I have not met the person who can convincingly tell you that they can recreate peppermint, or lilac at will and with … immediacy.  I myself cannot, but can force a small fragment of the experience in an almost intellectual way—not the visceral experience…Why is this? I think that smell…has a more primitive, somatic nature: you cannot create the qualities of intense pain or itch in your mind and feel them with any intensity either. Perhaps this is because smell is a primitive stimulus …  in some ways, the more primitive sensations are more important to survival.  The body does not want you to create the experience of smelling danger or food or a mate ex nihilo unless they are actually present- it costs to act and false alarms can lead to problems.

When we imagine, our experiences of sensations are dulled, so as to distinguish these imagined senses from real cues. We “force” an experience in “an almost intellectual way.”

What interests me here is that most people believe that they can imagine smells perfectly; viscerally. Or, while they are reading, they tell themselves that they have smelled something. (Like my idealized piano playing, there are no wrong notes. We have read a book—that is to say: imagined it—perfectly).

The smell of “salt and weeds:”

I am not smelling them: I am performing a synesthetic transformation. From the words “smell of salt and weeds” I am calling up an idea of that Cape Cod house I rent. The experience does not contain any true recall of an odor. It is a flash, which leaves a slight after-image. It is spectral and mutating. An aurora. A nebula of illusory material.


We refer to our imaginations as our “inner eye.” Wordsworth’s daffodils appeared to his inward eye, though these daffodils, pointedly, only flash


A sticking point: if I tell someone that I do not believe they can (viscerally) conjure a smell from memory they are affronted. I think the fact that we can’t recapitulate the world in perfect facsimile is terrifying and disorienting. The metaphors we use to describe our minds, our memories, our very consciousness, are hard to relinquish. 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.

Returning to audition for a moment: when I imagine music, what tends to get lost in my mental recreation of a piece or song, is timbral color; orchestration. I recall most music with a very clear sense of, say, intervallic relationships, or harmonic progression. I can hear the melody, or the descant. What I tend not to hear are the instruments—the sensuous specifics. Aaron Copeland suggested that, when we listen to music, we are listening on three “levels:” The sensuous, the expressive, and the semantic/musical. The sensuous, is for me, the easiest to forget and the hardest to conjure. If I imaginatively “hear” the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, I recall that insistent, downward-thrusting figuration. I don’t hear the “tutti,” or the individual instruments that make up the orchestra. I hear the shape of the notes, and their expressive quality. Strangely, I can recall the voices of singers. Is this because we can, ourselves, from our bodies, produce, voice?

Do we hear characters voices? This seems less far-fetched than imagining their (or any) smell; or seeing them...

To complete the Proust quote about reading I cited earlier:

 “The frantic career of the eyes…”

“…and…my voice, which had been following, noiselessly."


Someone might say, “well perhaps you can’t summon a smell by memory, (or the sound of instrumental color, or a vision of Anna Karenina) but maybe your senses aren't acute- maybe your sense of smell is poor.” (fair enough) “But someone with a highly developed sense of smell can summon a scent viscerally—a sommelier say, or a perfumer…” (and perhaps a portrait painter can summon up a more convincing image of Anna Karenina?)

True— a sommelier will have more responsive, complex olfactory responses than I do. As a result, a sommelier will have a better, more complete intellectual armature for his recall of scent—he will have a rich taxonomy of smells upon which to draw, and many metrics with which to judge and categorize. One scent may be acrid, and lightly fruity. Another spicy and sour, lying upon a spectrum only familiar to experts. This knowledge, though, is no more than a mental trellis upon which to hang the vines of one’s olfactory memories.

But these vines don’t flower or bear fruit. Not in our minds.


I am a visual person (so I am told). My livelihood, as a book designer, depends not only on my visual acuity in general, but on my ability to recognize the visual cues and prompts in texts. But when it comes to imaging characters, I am as blind as the next person.

Perhaps our ability to picture, smell, hear clearly while we read, depends on the strength of our faith in our ability to do so? Thinking we can picture, for all intents and purposes, is the same as picturing?


I’ve informally questioned many people I know about the books they love. I ask them to describe a central character in one of these books (making sure to only discuss books they’ve only recently just finished reading, or have re-read several times; so that whatever imagery they conjured when reading would still be fresh in their minds). My subjects respond by offering up one or two physical characteristics of a character (for instance “He’s short, and bald—I know that much”); followed by a lengthy disquisition on the character’s persona (“He’s a coward, unfulfilled, regretful, etc.). I generally have to stop them at some point in order to remind them that I was asking only for physical description.

That is to say, we confuse what a character looks like with who a character, putatively, is.

In this way we are backwards phrenologists, we readers. Extrapolating physiques from minds.


When we read about something—a place, a person—we separate it out from the mass of entities which surround it. We distinguish it. We excise it from the undifferentiated. Think of Stubb’s pipe. Or Achilles’ shield. (This thing is different from all other things: this thing is not Ahab’s peg leg, or Hector’s helmet.) We then form some kind of mental representation of it. It is a pipe: like this, and not like that. We form representations, so we can remember, and manipulate the memory of this pipe, so the information can be re-used. This representation is a model of some sort. We are also model builders, we readers.

Piaget tells us that “mental representation,” model-building, is what thought consists of.

But what kind of representation? Codes? Symbols? Words? Propositions? Pictures?


To know what reading is, we must know what reading is like. We thus examine the feeling of reading itself—the subjective state of awareness.

The psychological experience…

Can we do this: examine our own minds while we read?

The insurmountable obstacle here is that the more we focus on the experience we are having when we read, the less we are reading with any degree of concentration. The more we are immersed, the less we are conscious of the feeling we are participating in. Thus, when we discuss the feeling of reading we are really talking about the memory of having read.

And this memory of reading is a false memory. (There are no wrong notes…)


To the Lighthouse again:

There is a character, Lily Briscoe (“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered up face…”) who is a painter. She is, I think, Virginia Woolf’s avatar—the writer’s means of entering into her own novel. Lily Briscoe is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of Mrs. Ramsey sitting by the window reading to her son James (those amorphous characters from the book’s opening lines). Lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns, and paints while various players flit and charge around the property.

She is nervous about being interrupted, about someone breaking her concentration whilst engaged in this act of creation. And the idea that someone would interrogate her about this painting is intolerable.

But kind, acceptable Mr. Bankes wanders up and asks “What did she mean to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’?”

(This painting of Lily Briscoe’s, with its abstractions, is Woolf’s central metaphor for the act of creation in general—a writer or poet or composer’s reconstruction of this slippery world of ours—more specifically, the painting is a proxy for the book To the Lighthouse, by Virgina Woolf.

How does Lily Briscoe’s painting reproduce the scene? Mrs. Ramsey, James, the house, the window?

“But the picture was not of them, she said. Or not in his sense. There are other senses too in which one might reverence them. By a shadow here and a light there, for instance. Her tribute took that form if, as she vaguely supposed, a picture must be a tribute. A mother and child might be reduced to a shadow without irreverence.”

We reduce.

Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce. Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend our world. This is what humans do.

Picturing stories is making reductions.

What these reductions look like is anyone’s guess. (if they look like anything at all).


Lily painting:

“And she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space…But this is one way of knowing people, she thought: to know the outline, not the detail.”

The outline. Not the detail.

“There it was, her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something… She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred.”


It was blurred.