booking through thursday: mental imagery pt 2

Connected to last week’s—it’s one of the ways writing has changed. Books from a century or two ago spent huge swaths of text describing locations and character traits, but modern writing does all of this in shorthand. You might know a character is short with blond hair and blue eyes, but the author leaves the rest for you to figure out on your own. The writer might tell you the story takes place at a beachside town, but leaves the details to your imagination. Why do you suppose this is? Is it that we have shorter attention spans these days? That, bombarded with video and photos as we are, we don’t NEED every detail of an unknown scene described, because we have a stock of images already in our heads?

Great prompt! If you visit me here at this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m not much of a classics reader, but I remember some of the lengthy descriptions in such books from my high school curriculum. I have read a lot of contemporary fiction lately and can think of a couple of books that exercise this “less is more” technique when it comes to details:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. Hamid uses a second-person, present-tense style in a self-help book format and leaves all people and places unnamed, which at first is jarring and stark, but ends up engaging the reader. How can you not be engaged, the protagonist is “you.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Told almost entirely through a variety of letters, memos, emails, and other correspondance, this one leaves it up to the reader to piece together the events because they aren’t unfolding in front of you.

I really enjoyed both of these books—they were fast paced, plot driven, and imaginative. I agree that television and other visual media have a lot to do with this new trend in book writing. Books used to BE the main form of escapism entertainment—now television by far dominates that pastime, and it does the imagining for you. And after I see a film adaptation of a book I’d already read, I have this sort of strange reset memory thing that happens. No matter how vivid the book was in my mind, after I see the film that’s all I can imagine when I think of it (picturing the actors’ faces and other stuff unique to the film instead of what I originally saw in my mind’s eye as I read).

I don’t think one style is better than the other. It’s all subjective—what you are in the mood for and if the story appeals to you. The talent of the author and their writing craftsmanship plays a big part, too. Perhaps there is a long descriptive passage, but unless it drives the story it’s just useless verbosity. But with the right author descriptive writing can be wonderful and fun to read.

For my personal reading experience, description-heavy books in general tend to weigh me down. For example, Ian McEwan’s Atonement—I recognize and respect it as a stellar work of fiction, but I have to admit many of its long-winded sections of internalized narrative (the characters just thinking about stuff and how they feel about it for pages and pages…) wore me out.

What do you think the reasons are for this “less is more” trend with descriptions in books?

booking through thursday: mental imagery

How much do you visualize when you read? Do you imagine faces for the characters? Can you see the locations in your mind’s eye? Or do you just plunge ahead with the story, letting the imagery fall to the wayside?

I think this depends on the quality or nature of the writing. For example, last year I read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, set in India, and it was one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever encountered. A year later it’s still with me. Mistry’s descriptions of the anonymous poverty-stricken Indian city by the sea were so vivid, and the character’s personalities and appearances so carefully constructed that I feel like I really experienced the story to the fullest. Also, Mistry’s style is quiet, honed, and beautiful so it was incredibly easy to imagine faces, events, and locations with my mind’s eye.

Currently I’m reading Corban Addison’s debut novel A Walk Across the Sun, also set in India, mostly in Bombay (so far). Mistry is of course a more seasoned author and Addison new, so Addison’s descriptions aren’t quite as detailed as Mistry’s, especially of locations. Mistry placed me right there in the story with the characters, and I feel like Addison is telling me a story. While Addison’s book has a moving and powerful message about human trafficking and I’m enjoying reading it, I’m just not as emotionally invested—I feel at arm’s length for some reason. (This could be due to a number of external factors, too, like just my timing of reading or that we just moved last month, whatever.)

But in general, I’d say that images of locations are easier for me to conjure mentally while I read. Faces are tougher—often I can get sucked in enough that I see what the character sees, so I’m mentally and emotionally embodying the character and not picturing a separate being carrying out the events of the story. It was fun to try to pick out the dream cast for a few books on a recent Booking Through Thursday post, though!

How about you—what do you “see” while you read?