- The Reader’s Eye: Visual Imaging as Reader Response
Ellen Esrock’s The Reader’s Eye is a call for greater attention to the process of visual imaging in the study of readers and reading. Much of the book summarizes earlier research, showing the bias against readerly imaging on the part of scholars who have viewed the reading process as solely cognitive and linguistic, rather than affective and visual.
Part One summarizes some of these earlier views, finding phenomenological approaches the most friendly to visualization, while linguistic (semiotic) and psychoanalytic studies downplay its importance. Freudian approaches to reading, for example, view images as “hallucinations,” and value displacement from image to word. Lacan likewise minimizes the importance of imagery, despite the fact that concepts like the “mirror stage” could obviously benefit from visualization.
The second part of the book summarizes recent advances in cognitive psychology, leading to the development of experimental tools for measuring readerly imaging. While late nineteenth-century psychology expressed interest in image-formation, behaviorism put a stop to this work. In the 1960s, interest in imagery returned, and with it the study of “mental maps,” verbal learning, and the role of the visual in memory. Esrock details the use of images in teaching children to read, but shows that this process has not been taken seriously in research on adults. The most promising direction in contemporary research, she finds, is the discovery that visualization and affective experience are interwoven. Considerations about the pleasure of reading, right/left brain function, and the role of the visual in psychosexual stages (readerly voyeurism, for example) are detailed here.
The last chapter contains an interesting opposition between the objections of critic William Gass to readerly imaging and the use of visual images by writer Italo Calvino (Castle of Crossed Destinies, Invisible Cities). Esrock shows that it is almost impossible to interpret Calvino’s work without forming visual images.
The conclusion finally presents the author’s case for the importance of visualization to both the cognitive and affective sides of the reading process. She admits the presence of differences among genres, authors, and readers, but still finds a set of general principles which should apply to all. Among these are the claims that imaging affects memory, that it clarifies spatial descriptions, and thus makes a fictional world concrete. Esrock calls for more attention to imaging by reader-response critics, classroom pedagogy, linguistics, and gender/cultural studies.
The Reader’s Eye provides a solid history and summary of the current positions of a variety of fields on the hitherto neglected topic of readerly imaging. One criticism of the book might be that the author waits until the conclusion to [End Page 363] present her own findings, which occupy only twenty-seven of the volume’s 205 pages. Enthusiasts of this topic will hope that Professor Esrock may expand on some of these ideas in her next book.