Visual Memory


Over the weekend I was at my parents’ new place, briefly lending them a hand in unpacking after yet another move. (They do it for a hobby, I swear.) Amongst the pile of boxes I uncovered a collection of books from my childhood days, including a rather battered copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s collected works. Cue cessation of all unpacking as I flicked through it.

What struck me was that I didn’t remember most of the stories. These were the formative food for my imagination and I’m sure they contribute to the foundations of my own writing in some way, but the majority of the plots had vanished.

The pictures, on the other hand… Those simple line drawings were exactly as I remembered. I couldn’t tell you the tale behind them, but the images were crystal in my head. A little dusty, perhaps, but solidly embedded.

The brain works in weird ways. I’ve known for a long time that I pick things up by ear better than by eye, but I hadn’t appreciated that images are easier to remember than stories. It does make sense, I guess – we evolved to react to movement and colour rather than text. Those of our ancestors who could spot the sabre-tooth tiger in the grass tended to pass on their genes better. Images only lack movement, and our imaginations supply that very easily.

Why, then, do most adult books not include pictures? What is the thinking behind that fashion? Images are key to telling a story, and can add a whole other dimension to storytelling technique. In fact, when I read I usually don’t see the words at all. My brain translates it to a film – quite fuzzy, and the casting isn’t clear, but it’s images rather than text.

It also makes me wonder why comics and graphic novels aren’t more popular. I know there’s a stigma of either childishness or geekiness (why?), but some of them tell very mature stories. It’s just that the medium is different and, in my mind at least, ought to appeal more.

2 responses »

  1. Comics and graphic novels are incredibly popular at the moment. Just look at all the Hollywood cash ins that prove it. The news that Watchmen was getting a series of prequels actually made the BBC News frontpage.
    As for more images in books – I personally wouldn’t like it. When I read I always have an image of the place / characters / weather etc formed in my mind. I think it would jar to be shown what the author thinks it should look like (almost certainly different to what I think!). It’s the same as seeing your favourite book turned into a film – it never looks how you imagined it but at least you’re not trying to read the book whilst seeing the film.
    I imagine there are some sorts of book it works well for – I actually bought “the Art of a Song of Ice and Fire” but only after I’d already read the books and got my own images fixed.

    • Hollywood has had a hell of an impact lately, I grant you, but I wouldn’t say that actual comics are mainstream. You don’t see people reading them on the tube.

      Fair point about the pictures in books, although that opens a whole other argument about author’s vision versus reader’s perception. I might come back to that later!

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