Learning to Read… Again

Growing up, I was never the most literature savvy or well-read individual. I read what I needed to in order to pass a class, otherwise I often chose to avoid lengthy works of fiction or non-fiction. I would have rather read a short story or article, flipped through an art book, scanned a magazine, or lost myself to my most preferred format of the written word — comic books. The arrangement and structure of a comic book helped to keep me focused, unlike the void-of-visuals paperbacks that came before it.

With comic books, the addition of illustrations propelled the story forward and helped me establish crucial elements almost immediately; place a character’s physical appearance within seconds, drawing connections between the various faces and their corresponding names. Much like flash cards used to study for a test, the repetition of familiar faces made it infinitely easier for me to retain information associated with each character.

On the other hand, when reading a novel without coinciding pictures, it was difficult for my imagination to immediately conjure a cohesive image of a character based on a paragraph description of their features. The moments I would take to visualize this figure would break the natural flow of the story being told. I would attempt to retain this image going forward, inevitably losing track of “who was who” almost immediately. Having to conjure this image from my mind without a visual component was nearly impossible for me.

A similar dilemma plagued me when an author attempted to craft a specific atmosphere or present an incredible vista. They painstakingly painted a setting for me, describing every inch of an object, the smells that lingered in the air, and the sounds that echo down a corridor, only to leave me with a jumble of nice sentences floating freely and out of context. Without the addition of imagery I was never fully able to formulate the world I presumed others were experiencing.

I’ve relied heavily on picking out physical characteristics of celebrities or people I’ve known over the years to help produce a story’s imagery; this makes sense since we’re incapable of generating something from absolutely nothing. However, this tendency rendered it difficult to retain a clear image of any one figure since they’re literally fragmented.

In order to combat this, I needed to create my own set of assets: something to reference when reading.

I decided to do just that when I recently began reading Annihilation: Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. At the beginning of the story, there’s a list of four women characters who will inevitably play significant roles. I illustrated my own depictions of these four women in one of my sketchbooks.

Quick character sketches of women from Jeff Vandermeer’s book Annihilation: Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

Rather than sketching out each character’s physical characteristics, specific facial features, or particular attire in detail, I chose to give myself a time limit of 30 minutes, spending roughly 8 minutes per figure. Installing a time limit would eliminate an opportunity for me to question my mark or show hesitation. What marks the paper in the end is my immediate reaction to a character’s introductory presence.

Much like an appendix, I was creating a visual dictionary to serve as a personal reading tool. It could easily clarify who’s involved and their physical appearance. When convoluted conversations between characters arise, I can use this list to directly place various figures within a setting. This addition of content will allow me to focus more heavily on the story’s scenarios, themes, and language and less on attempts at formulating facial characteristics. The presence of this distinct visual tool makes every aspect of reading feel more fluid.

We all have to pull visuals from somewhere, so why not create my own and avoid outside influence? For instance, when reading the Harry Potter series, I can’t help but envision Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, or Rupert Grint. While great, the presence of those movies has had such an impact on how Harry Potter is advertised and marketed that it’s directly affected my ability to imagine those characters presenting any other way. I absolutely adore the original book jackets, with their pastel and acrylic like illustrations, but once that recognizable image of a character is secured, there’s no going back.

As time goes on, I’ve come to realize what often plagued my ability to visually materialize the written word was my own wandering thoughts. Rather than focus my energy on remaining calm and present, I was often burdened with an overflowing mind filled with concern, such as paying bills on time, meeting deadlines at work, or making sure I turned the coffee pot off before leaving the house. At the end of the day, we all take home a lot of new information and sometimes it’s hard to catalogue and manage those thoughts when trying to read. The art of reading takes a conscious effort on the consumer and this blockade can make that effort more difficult. If I wasn’t worrying about something, than I was most certainly daydreaming or conceiving new project ideas, almost always distracted and at war with my own brain.

Sketching figures like this will work perfectly for fiction novels since every character from a book is open to personal interpretation. On the contrary, it’ll be interesting to see how I might be able to apply this particular activity and way of thinking to non-fiction literature.

I may even attempt draw the same figures upon completing the book in order to see how they’ve evolved. This way I can have a visual representation documenting how the characters evolved over the course of the story. It would reflect how they’ve each acted throughout, what decisions they’ve made, and showcase my personal feeling towards each one: similar to a Dorian Gray painting.

In order to fully enjoy reading, I’ve had to learn how to redirect my thoughts when I become distracted. So far, the creation and application of drawn figures has helped tremendously and I plan on continuing this habit going forward.