Why reading is creative

The magic of books
The magic of books
Copyright: olgaaltunina / 123RF Stock Photo

I think everyone can agree that writing is a creative endeavor, but so, I think, is reading. That’s because the book only comes alive inside your brain.

Does that sound weird?

Consider this sentence from Before and After the Wedding, completely out of context:


“I don’t delude myself he’s watching as I pad on bare feet to the balcony door, slightly ajar to let in the lush October warmth.”


Right away, all sorts of things pop into my mind. What popped into yours?

Is it a woman’s thoughts? A man’s? Lush October warmth… so maybe somewhere warm? A hot breeze, maybe? Soft, fluttering white curtains… or maybe huge windows overlooking the sea? A room with tiles? And someone is there, who might or might not be watching… Who is he?

The creativity comes, somehow, between the lines. It sneaks up on us and creates, somewhere in the back of our minds, a vision of something tangible. Something that feels real to us. Something more than just the words on the page.

People are all different of course, and experience reading in different ways. I’ve got a friend who’s a poet, for instance, and she sees the words very specifically, their cadence and rhythm. She’s super attuned to emotional nuance, and gets a huge number of word connotations at the blink of an eye.

For my part, I’ve got a a very visual mind. Not that I’ve got perfect photographic memory, as nice as that would have been back in high school, but even then I remembered the placement of pictures in the text books, their colors, sometimes the entire photograph in startling detail. I’d get memory flashes of how the text was broken up into paragraphs, and where the answer to the pesky question on the quiz would be, even if I couldn’t remember the text.

It’s even more so with places. I can walk through rooms I’ve been to in my mind and “see” them, remembering what was on shelves, the texture of the carpet, the paintings on the walls, the checkered table cloth and the scratch mark on the chair, and the way there was a cold draft by the window.

So in short, it’s no wonder that when I read, it’s a visual experience for me. Whole rooms pop up in my mind from just a few words, complete with furniture and light slanting in through the windows. The author might have written, say (making this up as I go here):


“The library was huge, with a vaulted baroque ceiling and numerous globes, not to mention rows upon rows of books.”


And in my mind, up pops something like this:

Baroque library
Copyright: drakodav / 123RF Stock Photo

It doesn’t work for just settings either of course–the real pleasure in reading for me is the characters. They become more than their words and actions, coming alive in my mind in an intangible fashion, and I care about them, suddenly, when really all that exists is a string of words.

It’s sort of like the mind fills in the blanks and creates a real person in your subconsciousness.

Perhaps this is part of why characters strike people so differently sometimes—it all depends on what you slip into the cracks. (Of course, a part of that is logical as well, and past experiences and what not will make you judge situations and characters differently, just like we do with real people.)

I wonder if this reader-creativity can be more or less benign? For example, are you likelier to make up things you like, or to fill the blanks with negative things? And what triggers one response or another?

It’s a fascinating subject.

One thing is sure though, that without reader creativity, reading would be a dull business.

What about you? How do you experience reading?

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