Reading without visualizing
I recently saw some people on Twitter expressing confusion about how people enjoy reading with aphantasia. I even saw some people not believing that it was possible to enjoy reading if you were unable to visualize the characters and events.
This got me thinking a bit about what it is that I personally enjoy about reading. And I think most of the things I like and dislike about books can be traced back to aphantasia. While I think aphantasia is far too complicated and nuanced to paint with a single-sized brush, here are five things that I’ve found help me enjoy reading more. I hope these will help you get more out of reading with aphantasia without becoming frustrated at your lack of a mind’s eye.
Disclaimer: Cognition is super complicated and there’s no accounting for taste; your mileage may vary.
1. Don’t Sweat the Details
Most of the time, especially in fantasy, the author has a very specific picture they’re trying to paint for you: a portrait of a hero or villain, the landscape of an enchanted forest, the detailed topography of bejeweled armor. And for most people, that’s probably great. But for us, there’s a lot of words being spent on specific details that do not matter.
I recently encountered this with the description of a courtyard. The author spent an entire paragraph meticulously placing trees and features on the east side, the west side, the north side… At which point I pretty much just started to skim. I know what courtyards look like; I could’ve done with “a courtyard with trees and frescoes and statues of epic heroes.”
When you come to a particularly detail-dense section of a book, don’t get discouraged. Pull out the things that matter (“there are trees”, or “the sword is made of gold”), fuzz them together, and throw the rest of it away (who cares exactly where the trees are positioned, anyway?).
Rarely, this might come back to bite you in the ass if these details are actually plot-relevant. Usually they’re not. But even if they do come back to bite you, don’t worry about it. You’re an aphant! It’s going to be nowhere near as jarring for you to reconcile the missing details than it would be for a non-aphantic reader who just happened to skim the wrong paragraph and now suddenly realizes that character X had a beard the whole time.
2. Don’t Reread Paragraphs
Life’s too short to keep rereading prose that doesn’t click. If you get to the end of a paragraph and realize that you’ve absorbed nothing, let it go. Something there simply did not work for you, and most of the time you’ll gain more by just reading the next paragraph and inferring what, if anything, you missed. From my experience, this tends to happen in sections of the book that are heavy with description or with mundane actions of movement—things which, if you’re aphantastic, can be easily skipped in favor of juicy plot elements.
There’s an exception to this, though: dialogue. By and large, dialogue tends to be worthwhile, so if you failed to absorb any at the end of a paragraph, make a point of rereading only the dialogue and then forge ahead for missing context.
3. Slow Down and Fill the Gaps Yourself
When I read, I’m in it for two main things: interesting stories and emotional depth. Most authors shoot to supply both, but I often find myself wanting for the second. Depending on the book, I sometimes find it helpful to stop for a moment, put the book down, and ruminate a bit on the POV characters and what’s happening to them, what they’re feeling. Try reflecting a bit on what’s not being said by the author, especially when it comes to motivations and emotions. Try to put yourself in their mindspace and experience a bit of what they must be feeling, without waiting for the author to supply it to you.
This can be expanded a bit to cover whatever it is you read books for. Ask yourself: what do you enjoy experiencing in fiction? Do you like exciting battles? Try dwelling more on the specifics of a fight scene. Do you like deep, complex history and lore? Let yourself speculate about the universe and wander a bit through the unspoken. The fact, by the numbers, is that most authors don’t have aphantasia, and most books are written assuming the reader has a mind’s eye. The pacing will naturally follow suit. Try setting the pace yourself, and enjoy some you time in the gaps.
4. Go for a Swim in the Language
Since there’s no risk of being distracted by mental imagery, you have a unique opportunity to get lost in the language. Sure, everyone can appreciate good rhythm and vocabulary in prose, but the language is my default focus when I read. A lot of complaints I’ve heard about books simply don’t apply to me: I don’t get pulled out of the story by allusions, alliteration makes me unconscionably happy, and I love purple prose (as long as it doesn’t, y’know, suck).
Aphantasia is an opportunity–and an excuse–to let yourself get distracted by language. Breathe it in, enjoy it. Find and share those lines that choke you out with their elegance and cleverness. Let yourself stretch out against the natural, raw shape of the words and sentences and see what you fit with.
5. Forget You Have Aphantasia
Easier said than done, but hear me out. It’s very easy to get distracted by the idea that other people are enjoying fiction in a way you can’t. I’ve even seen some people talking about becoming depressed after learning they have aphantasia. And I get it. After figuring out I had it, I did feel a bit cheated. It didn’t seem fair that I was just randomly missing what seemed like a basic human faculty. But I don’t think this is a useful expenditure of emotion.
Instead, just pretend that aphantasia isn’t even a thing. You probably lived most of your life without realizing your experiences were any different than anyone else’s; channel the you from before you learned about aphantasia. Take the benefits of knowing that your brain works differently, but leave behind the baggage that tries to drag you down into fixating on it.
So stop thinking about how things should be. Don’t try to hammer a square peg into a round hole. If you stop caring that you have aphantasia, it will be easier to enjoy and experience books in a way that works for you, rather than on anyone else’s terms.