Reading · Teaching

Text and Image, the “What Do You See When You Read?” edition

I had the most wonderful conversation in my Senior Symposium today.  Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium always intimidates students, but always precipitates the most animated and thoughtful discussions.  We were talking about his plea for visibility in texts.
I always take this occasion to ask students how they think.  I ask them to think of something—a cloud, say, or a dragon—and then I ask them if, in their heads, they saw images or words. (Or if I asked for coffee, would they see the plant, the word, or the word spelled out in beans?) Do they think, in short, in images or words?  Today’s tally was six wordy folk and 30 picture people. Over the last decade, my students have become decidedly more visual in their thinking.
The implications of that sent us reeling.  First, I discovered many of them write creatively, and when they do, some see mental movies, and then composition is just describing what they saw in their heads.  Calvino admits to starting with an image for three of his novels, but doesn’t claim it for all his works.  It begs the question, where do those images or movies come from that they see in their minds and try to convey.  Mostly they feel like they are spawned by their personal experiences and stories they know. They don’t believe as much in inspiration, but in compilation.
Calvino worried (I find it adorable) in 1985, that we were becoming overwhelmed with images—that we see so many images, we are saturated, and he frets about people in the 21st century being able to make original images.  I think he needn’t have worried.  It has only gotten worse (if you think image-saturation is a bad thing), and we have continued to create more and more.  In fact, visual texts are increasingly popular, and there is no sign of slowing down. In an era of memes, graphic novels, television, and film, the visual arts are still thriving, although perhaps in a more self-consciously derivative way.
Ultimately, I don’t think his fear was founded.  Just as stories can be told and retold, images can be made and remade, and just as for centuries we’ve been bemoaning the fact that no one can read everything in print, now no one can see everything either.  (I can’t even be counted on to watch a television show regularly).  That means there will always be the possibility of finding something new to you.
Perhaps the most delightful discovery we made today was the variety of ways in which different people can think and read.  One confessed she doesn’t see images as she reads; she goes from words on the page to words in her mind and only at the end takes a moment to conjure an image of what happened.  One associates feelings with colors, so reads as if through rose or crimson or charcoal colored glasses. One said ideas and stories come to him in static images, and he has to write them down to be free of them (as good a student of Calvino as there ever was).  I see words in my head as people talk to me and am constantly shifting parts of words to figure out roots and etymologies, but I have a hard time holding images in my head, and I can’t manipulate them (I am an English major, not an engineer.)  But having this discussion opened all our minds a little, just to know the sheer range of ways to process words and images.

There is much work to be done in cognitive science in terms of imagining and reading, if my class is any indicator.  Meanwhile, Calvino’s fear of over-saturation was borne out when wordy people claimed they remember distinctive images and visual people remember slogans and words more readily, as they stand out against the flood of images.  The upshot is that we all move pretty fluidly from text to image and back again.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but one word can trigger countless images too.  

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