Outside the Mind's Eye

Misadventures in Visualizing Books

by Ben Berke

Illustration by Jennifer Xiao

published October 2, 2015

“How do I know you again?” she asks me from the kitchen counter at her boyfriend’s party. She flashes a smile that a stranger who has said hi to her three times this spring doesn’t necessarily deserve.

I’m sure I know her. I see her walking around campus a lot with said boyfriend, who I know tangentially. I played on the same baseball team as him when we were kids, and we overlapped for a few years in high school.

So I want to say I met her through Mark, the flaky boyfriend, but it’s obvious to me that I know her much better than that. I know that she grew up in Connecticut. She plays squash, studies English. She’s in some media theory courses but her heart lies with 19th century British novels. Her adviser is Sandy Zipperstein... And at this point I realize I’m actually thinking of Madeleine Hanna from The Marriage Plot, and not the person sitting on the kitchen counter in front of me—who does date Mark, but hails from the west coast and studies biology.  

There’s a ¾-baked theory floating around in my head that explains why I confused fiction with reality, unknowingly assigning her face to that of Madeleine. I decide it’s better not to disclose that her face comes to mind every time Madeleine appears in the 416-page Jeffrey Eugenides novel that I chronically reread—even if I were being honest that this sort of thing happened to me all the time.




I’ve just described the partial disintegration of a book universe. Camille, my visual proxy for Madeleine Hanna, was so different from the character in The Marriage Plot that one of my core mental images for the book disintegrated. Normally, strangers cannot contradict a novel’s characters. But now that I knew Camille, she and Madeleine disentangled. The next time I read The Marriage Plot, I could no longer visualize Madeleine’s face. The football player I mistook for Mike Schwartz from The Art of Fielding wasn’t so lucky. I gave him the ‘what’s up’ a few more times before I connected the two situations.

The ¾-baked theory explaining why I awkwardly assign strangers’ faces to fictional characters has become clear since my confrontation with Camille: the mental images that come to mind when I read are all images I’ve seen before. Words don’t beget new images, they just facilitate the recycling and alteration of old ones.

Once they have a hold, assigned images can lock in intensely. If an author takes too long to physically describe a character, chances are I’ve already assigned them a face, and the belated details become useless. Faces are always faces I’ve seen before—mostly from strangers, sometimes actors, and occasionally from someone I know personally.




Visually, a book’s setting is cobbled together from a similar image bank. My mental map of a story is a patchwork of places I’ve seen in movies or real life. This stitching happens on a room-by-room basis.

As the title would suggest, most of Willa Cather’s novel The Professor’s House takes place in one home. I’ve read this book so many times now that I have clear images of what most of this house looks like. The facade is the white, two-story house of a family friend who lived near my high school, a classic American home with a brick stoop and black shutters.  But as soon as I walk in the door I’m in the foyer of a different friend’s brick house two streets north of the house that lended its facade. Straight ahead are stairs, to the left is my friend’s dining room that we never go in, forward and to the right is my friend’s living room, the stand-in Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s dining room, which means there are two dining rooms in this professor’s house. My friend’s coffee table elongates and rises to dinner-bearing height. 

The stairs bring me to a vague second floor. In my mind, St. Peter and his wife sleep in a bedroom that I don’t know how to get to from the stairs—but it looks the same as the hotel bedroom Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams share in Midnight in Paris. St. Peter’s daughters ostensibly have rooms on this vague second floor as well, but since they no longer live in the house and no scenes take place in their rooms, my mind never had to assign an image to them.

I can’t tell you how to get to the third floor either but once you’re up there, it’s just the hallway from my neighbor’s house. St. Peter’s office is my neighbor Joe Connelly’s bedroom, and his brother’s bedroom across the hall never assumes a role in the story but is still featured in the visualization.

The description of this house may have failed for multiple reasons. I may have lost you as soon as I laid out the floor plan. It’s possible you picked your mental images as soon as I said “white, two-story house” and any details that came after the fact were superfluous, even if they contradicted your image. This happens to me all the time. Our minds’ eyes are stubborn.

There’s also the more glaring possibility that that description made almost no sense. The rooms didn’t connect. There were three floors inside a two-story house. The blueprints don’t match up.

Science fiction has an even stronger tendency to put my image-assigning mechanisms in uncomfortable positions. I’ve never been in a spaceship so there’s no primary source material sitting around in the image bank. It wasn’t until I reread parts of Ender’s Game that I realized how ridiculous my mental maps for spaceships were. I really only have one, with some leeway for especially compelling details: the floorplan of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon (which I learned from a model I built with my dad), with my friend Sasha’s kitchen grafted onto the place where the Quad Laser resides in film and diorama. I’ve also never been on a large boat so most of the spatial images for J.D. Salinger’s short story, “Teddy,” came from the Daisy Cruiser map in Mario Kart: Double Dash!!

What’s important is that these images never felt ridiculous while I was reading. The images of Ender Wiggin drinking out of my friend’s cups or Teddy McArdle walking past anthropomorphized directional signage only seem funny in retrospect. The redundant dining room and mysterious second floor aren’t distractions when I read The Professor’s House. When I’m reading, these images blend into a passive, unobtrusive background, a springboard that never demands scrutinizing attention. 




The fact that these mental maps are so sketchy and incongruous says a lot about the way we read. Reading is only semi-visual. Our image patchworks help us understand books, but they don’t hold up to scrutiny. When I go looking for connections between rooms, or faces of minor characters, or temporal integrity in any sense of the term, I can’t find them. 

This fragility makes mental patchworks particularly susceptible to destruction by movie adaptation. Movies are visually congruous and fleshed out. Our ephemeral clouds of images don’t stand a chance. Visually (at the very least), the book universe is irreversibly supplanted by the movie universe.

Much to an author’s annoyance, book covers can have a similar effect. The difference being that book covers don’t replace images, they prescribe them. This can be easy or difficult to work around. The 1990 Vintage Classics reprint of The Professor’s House has the view from the Professor’s office window on its front cover. This isn’t much of an imposition on my mental image of his office. The office can still be Joe Connelly’s bedroom—it’s just that his window looks out at the landscape from the illustration, rather than my house. I had the opposite experience with a different Willa Cather book. The 1955 edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop features such an unflattering portrait of said Archbishop that I couldn’t even shake the image after I lost that copy and picked up a 1990 Vintage Classics reprint at Saver’s.

It must be said that during my mental probing for examples, there were a few images from books that I couldn’t find a real world source for: the Glass family’s living room in Salinger’s short stories, Okonkwo’s hut in Things Fall Apart, the room in Virginia from which David Berman writes “Self-Portrait at 28.” I’m not sure if I’ve been to these places and forgotten where they are, or if I saw them in a movie that I can’t put my finger on right now, but all three of these settings are so vivid that I doubt I visualized them solely from a verbal prompt. Here’s to forgetting more faces and places. Maybe it will help me read fiction like it’s actually fiction.


BEN BERKE B’16 has a stubborn mind’s eye.