I (don’t) see read people

I never got around to reviewing Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye (2010), which was one of the books I read while finishing my thesis – chosen because it was so far from the books I was writing about.  I still loved them, but I needed to balance things out with something different.  I wrote about Sacks in this article, but not this book in particular – and I especially wanted to write about the final chapter, because it struck a chord with me.

That is a painting I did for my parents’ Christmas present – of our house – partly because I thought you might like this glimpse into the Christmas festivities of the Thomas family, partly to include a picture in this post, and partly as evidence that I am rather a visual person.  I am a thousand times happier in an art gallery than at a concert; I can think of nothing nicer than looking at the beauties of nature, and I am overcome with appreciation when looking at views in the Lake District or a beautiful old house etc. etc.

And yet, I have never in my life visualised characters in a book.

You know how some readers watch a film and complain that the people cast didn’t match their mental images?  Not me.  I mentally carry characters through a book as bundles of emotions,  thoughts, responses, likes, dislikes, characteristics – but I will have no idea what sort of nose they have, or if their hair is straight or wavy, or anything like that.  Even if the author has told us what they look like, I’ll probably have ignored it.  And I have to skim past any passage which describes what a place looks like, because it means nothing to me.  Similarly anything with spatial descriptions – if a passage talks about someone entering from the right, walking behind a sofa with a bookcase to the left, etc. etc., I have to concentrate incredibly hard for it to compute.  And it’s not worth it!

I would understand this, if I wasn’t bothered by aesthetics. But they mean so much to me. It’s curious.

And then I read Oliver Sacks, and he is the same!  It was so nice to read someone so knowledgeable and eloquent who had his brain wired the same way.  (You see, he was so informative that I’ve learnt the terminology… ahem.)  You see, I don’t say ‘problem’, because I don’t think this impairs my reading at all – I certainly don’t miss it when I’m reading, and it’s not as though I hate books – but it does mean I can’t read most travel literature, as that is almost invariably scenery-description-based.

As usual, I’d love you to weigh in – anyone else there like me, who loves scenery and art and aesthetics, but can’t meaningfully interpret a description of something visual?  Or do you always ‘see’ characters when you read about them?  I don’t think any of these things are better or worse – heck, we all love reading, don’t we? – but it’s interesting to see (ahem) the different types of readers we all are.

49 thoughts on “I (don’t) see read people

  • January 29, 2014 at 11:22 pm
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    Lovely picture, Simon!
    Like you, I have trouble visualizing certain written information. The hardest passages in the Bible, for reading (not doctrine), are not the genealogies but the descriptions of the temple, the boundaries of Israel, etc.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:24 pm
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      Thanks Renata!
      And oh my goodness, I agree. I try to follow the '2 cubit metres of this of that' and get so confused.

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  • January 29, 2014 at 11:37 pm
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    Your parents must have been delighted with that, Simon. I can always 'see' characters; quite often, I'm afraid, when I check the actual text I find that I've seen them rather differently than the author did. (Especially handsome man/heroes who will always be dark in my eyes, and to hell with the author thinks.)
    I so agree about being happier in an art gallery than a concert; I don't think I'm a very good listener and my mind wanders. Maybe it's just the brain we are born with. I am always surprised by friends who can't concentrate on a painting, which is why I always prefer to go to exhibitions on my own. But I do enjoy opera/ballet, maybe because I've got something to look at. It seems to anchor my thoughts.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:27 pm
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      I was amused by your comment on handsome heroes – I find, in novels of the interwar period, this is so often immediately spoiled by reference to their thin moustache…

      Ages ago I did a music vs. art poll on here, and was the only person who voted for art. Nice to have some company, and I always enjoy reading about your trips to exhibitions. But I've never been to the opera or ballet, so maybe I should rectify that…

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  • January 30, 2014 at 12:34 am
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    I think I picture characters like you do. If there has been a movie with an actor, then I will picture them as that person, but just from a written characteristic? No. Additionally, I often can't remember any character's names – the assortment of letters represents that person. It's a wonder I enjoy reading at all!

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm
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      Yes! I can never remember names, even if I look up for a moment, and it is exactly because I remember the look of the letters instead.

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  • January 30, 2014 at 8:00 am
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    How fascinating! I must be rather the opposite – I'm a very visual reader – I always hold a mental picture of whatever I'm reading like a film playing in my head as I go. I prefer to read a book before I see a film, so I'm rarely seeing really actors in the roles.

    However, I'm also like you in that I find concerts and listening hard to do without multitasking. Audio books also are not for me – I can't not let my eyes and hands do something.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm
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      That is interesting! I love how different we all are with this, and yet how we all love reading.

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  • January 30, 2014 at 9:09 am
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    I usually have a rough idea of how the characters might look like when reading a book, but nothing specific at all.

    I do like descriptions of places and characters though, especially if they are, to me, well written.

    I wonder, do you/can you read Zola? In his books there is so little action, so much so that descriptions of characters and settings are of paramount importance to get the story to evolve.

    Also, I suppose it would be hard for you to read someone like Balzac, who believed in physiognomy and in the fact that people were deeply influenced by the places they lived and moved in, hence, again, his accurate descriptions.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:30 pm
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      I have never tried Zola, actually, but I will be intrigued to see how I get on. And I've only read one Balzac (Sarrasine) so perhaps have not sampled enough to judge my reaction to his writing.

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  • January 30, 2014 at 9:21 am
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    I find this fascinating! I'm a very visual person, and I have a good spatial awareness, too, so I really like the layouts and scenes to work properly (useful in my work as an editor) and get really bothered if they don't. I find it hard to listen to things without something to see, so a concert is fine if I can see the performers, not if I am too far away, and that's probably why I don't fancy audio books, although I love being read to (because you can see the reader?). I've never thought about that aspect, so thank you!

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:30 pm
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      So you are visual and LIKE visual descriptions in books; I am visual and don't. Interesting!

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  • January 30, 2014 at 10:53 am
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    I thinks there's also a people/places thing going on here, not necessarily connected to aesthetics. I always like to know what the characters in a book look like, and if I'm not told, will fill in the gaps myself. Could this be linked to the old idea that physical appearance was an indication of character, I wonder?
    Yet whilst I love being out in the countryside, and would describe myself as nature-loving, I find descriptions of it in books intensely boring and usually skip them and though brief descriptions of the way rooms are decorated and furnished are fine, when it comes to complicated descriptions of the layout of houses…ditto. A lovely painting of what must be a gorgeous house in an idyllic setting, by the way.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:31 pm
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      Thank you Lizzie!
      I do love some description of what things are in a room, to set the scene, but I have to give up if the spatial relationship between them is attempted…

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  • January 30, 2014 at 12:13 pm
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    I agree it's a lovely painting, Simon – I found myself checking for Sherpa!

    I am much the same with visualization. I may or may not remember a character has blond hair & grey eyes, but I don't have a mental picture of that character. Descriptions of houses used to drive me crazy, especially when they go on & on, because I can't picture what the author is talking about, so I've learned to read through quickly. Occasionally with travel books I'll check on-line for pictures of a place, just to get some idea, and I often consult an atlas as well (it doesn't help that I'm hopeless with directions).

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:33 pm
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      Thank you Lisa – Sherpa is actually there! You probably can't tell from a photography, but I did sneak her in the left hand corner of the door…

      Lovely to have other people in the same boat as me :) I also can't do directions at all, and loathe maps.

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  • January 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm
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    Hmm. Difficult one. I get images in my head but they're often very fuzzy – I think I may have a bit of a fuzzy brain generally! But I think I *do* visualise the characters and places and expect adaptations to match up with them. I think the fuzziness comes from the fact that I fuction better, particularly when organising things, with a plan e.g. a monthly planner with boxes so I can 'see' on the printed paper what's going to be happening. And I really don't do so well with books involving lots of moving about or travelling that don't have a map… :) But at the end of the day, it probably doesn't matter as long as we enjoy the books! Maybe this is why you get on so well with Ivy Compton-Burnett and her dialogue?

    (Lovely painting, btw)

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:34 pm
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      I think that is definitely one of the reasons I love ICB books so much, and I very much prefer well written dialogue to well written prose. If an author can do dialogue well, whether realistic or stylised, I am completely sold.

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  • January 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm
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    I carry a general impression of the characters, especially of build, rarely of facial features – not necessarily informed by the author's description. But once in a while inconsistent details throw me out of the world of the story. There's a passage in The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets where one of the main characters moves from wearing a skirt to wearing trousers (or maybe vice versa) which brought out my inner editor! And where I know an accurately described place, I can get similarly thrown. I'm sure Ian Rankin sends Rebus the wrong way up a one-way street at least once. But the thing that really gets me is inaccurate or inconsistent descriptions of relationships, from whether two characters are blood-cousins or not, to why Mr Collins isn't called Bennet (actually I've forgiven that last one and just get carried along). And I thought I was such a forgiving reader!

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:35 pm
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      I'm always amused by films set in Oxford, as they invariably cut between streets that are nowhere near each other! But I'm not sure I'd notice that sort of detail in a novel… although it was fun working out where the college was in Gaudy Night (about the only fun I got from that novel…)

      I thought Mr Collins' and Mr Bennet's fathers were cousins, rather than them being cousins?

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    • February 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm
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      Ah, but if the point is that the inheritance is in the male line, shouldn't the heirs all have the same surname? (Unless Jane Austen had a really rich and detailed back story?)

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  • January 30, 2014 at 2:20 pm
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    I remember having a very hard time visualizing places when I was seven and read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I didn't understand the descriptions so I kinda superposed my idea of Narnia over the layout of my school and worked from there. It got pretty frustrating when the characters insisted on turning right instead of left (Peter, there's a WALL there!) or going to a place that didn't fit in my idea of what Narnia was supposed to look like…

    I guess I never got over that. Fantasy novels with new worlds and maps make me feel disoriented and I try to avoid them, unless they turn out to be very very good :P

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:36 pm
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      Hurrah for avoiding maps! But hilarious about Peter walking into a wall ;)

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  • January 30, 2014 at 6:03 pm
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    Thank you for so eloquently expressing what I have always struggled with when reading, namely, my inability to "see" detailed descriptions of places, people, and objects. For many years I have just assumed I have a learning disability. Emotions, events, and actions are vivid but the physical environment remains slightly out of focus and somehow secondary to the characters and plot. I am tempted to keep this column for future reference when trying to explain my reading approach to others. Well done!

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:37 pm
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      That's a lovely comment, thank you Elizabeth! I very much recommend you read at least the last chapter of Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye, as he explains this position so well.

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  • January 30, 2014 at 7:24 pm
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    You are quite the talented artist, Simon! Your parents must have been thrilled with their gift.
    There is such a movie going on in my head that it's not until the phone rings or I glance up the clock that I become aware of the print. Weird, but it seems to work for me! You're the first person I've met who absorbs stories in such a way but it's going to be my survey question at the library tomorrow.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:37 pm
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      Thanks so much Darlene!
      And your description of the way you read is the first time I've felt jealous about not seeing characters/settings, I have to say…
      (Also, what was the result of your survey?)

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  • January 30, 2014 at 11:20 pm
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    LOVE the painting – your parents must have been delighted with it! I'm not sure how much detail I "see" in my mind. I don't think I get an exact picture, though. I never visualize "bad stuff" as graphically as Hollywood tends to translate it to film. (e.g. the Orcs, Gollum, etc. in the Lord of the Rings films – my mental pictures are much less scary)

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:40 pm
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      Thank you Susan! They certainly seemed pleased, and it is now on the living room wall :)

      A good point about graphic stuff – if I were a visual reader, I'd cope even less with dark bits in books.

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  • January 31, 2014 at 1:30 am
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    What a beautiful painting – is there no end to your talents? I am very like you, swoon at natural beauty and art, care not for concerts, never have visualized the face even of any Austen character…though in passing it seems to me there could be any number of reasons why Collins isn't Bennet. Might be more distant than a first cousin, might have changed his name…
    – Diana Birchall

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:41 pm
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      Thank you very much Diana! And how nice to find so many kindred souls in this thread – I thought everyone would be finding me crazy!

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  • January 31, 2014 at 11:15 am
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    Yes yes yes! I am very much the same. This may also account for why I am not at all good at remembering directions. I simply cannot 'see' the route in my mind's eye.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:43 pm
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      Hurrah Erica! Lovely to have more people in the same position:)

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:43 pm
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      Thank you Vicki! I was indeed helped by how lovely the place is :)

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  • January 31, 2014 at 8:26 pm
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    I wonder if you have difficulty remembering people's faces, too Simon. Seems very odd to me for a visual person not to be able to "see" characters or settings while reading a book. Quite a paradox.

    I am extremely visual and in my imagination most books I read are cinematic wonders. Probalby because I am an avowed movie-holic (they were truly my first love from a very early age) everything I read gets the silver screen treatment in the movie palace of my mind. Not only can I imaigne the faces of the characters, but I can construct masterfully filmed action sequences with impressive camera angles and ever changing POV shots.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:46 pm
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      I'm not amazing at remembering faces, but I'm also bad at remembering names, events, the past… basically I have a terrible memory!

      It is a weird paradox – it must be different parts of the brain, I guess, since I don't seem to be the anomaly I thought I might be. Your way of reading sounds very exciting and vivid!

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  • January 31, 2014 at 10:01 pm
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    Gosh no, I don't think I've ever pictured a character in my mind's eye. But I do love art, in general, and your picture in particular. I love art but I am completely hopeless at drawing. When my friend at school felt depressed, I'd draw her a teapot, as no one could ever look at a teapot I'd drawn without laughing.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:47 pm
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      That's hilarious, Victoria! I don't do nearly enough art, as I do find it quite emotionally exhausting (hark how pretentious that sounds, but it is true). Art was one of the few things I could do which my brother could not, so maybe that's a reason I love it ;)

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  • February 1, 2014 at 12:40 am
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    I sometimes form pictures of characters, but those pictures are rarely detailed and usually don't draw from the author's descriptions of what the person looks like. For example, if a character reminds me of a character in a movie, I might picture that actor, even if the actor has dark hair and the character is described as a blonde. Places are different–I can picture those pretty well, although I don't generally bother trying to map out how locations relate to each other.

    And for what it's worth, I don't think of myself as especially visual. I enjoy art but I'm more musical. I do have a strong memory for details of things that I've seen, though, so maybe I'm more visual than I think.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:48 pm
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      That makes sense to me – I will occasionally see an actor. What I can't then do is 'make them' move or change expression etc. in my imagination. That's something I believe Sacks talked about at length.

      I've also just remember that, despite playing various instruments, I could never play any piece at all without music – I definitely have no musical memory at all.

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  • February 1, 2014 at 10:16 am
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    After reading everyone's comments I'm beginning to wonder if I have an over-active imagination! I've always been able to 'see' places and characters in books. I know what the people look like, and the expressions on their faces, and the clothes they wear, and their mannerisms, and I can usually 'hear' their voices as well. And as a rule I have a clear idea of where they live – their home, and the area around it. But it means I tend to avoid films/TV dramatisations of books I love, because the characters, scenery etc are never as I think they should be. Radio productions are usually OK, but very occasionally I switch off because an actor sounds so wrong for the part.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:49 pm
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      You and Darlene, and one or two others, are all in the same boat! It does sound a fun way to read, but I can't really imagine it.

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  • February 1, 2014 at 8:47 pm
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    Lovely painting, Simon, and such a thoughtful, perfect gift.

    Your ponderings have made me realise I have no idea whether or not I "see" characters. I don't really think so but, on the other hand, I know exactly what their surroundings and clothes look like. It's strange what details our minds choose to focus on.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:50 pm
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      Thank you so much Claire!

      I have found this discussion so interesting – how avid readers can read in such different ways.

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  • February 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm
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    Yes, I am like this too. I love reading and consider myself fairly visual, but I struggle with visualising anything from a written description. In a similar vein, I've occasionally done exercise classes or work-related courses where there's been a relaxation activity with everyone closing their eyes and visualising something beautiful. Everyone else chills out while I get cross with myself for not being able to see the garden, mountain or whatever in my mind!

    Reading your post made me think of how difficult I found Elizabeth Von Arnim, who I think is very visual, but I think you are a fan of hers?

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