So when you read this line from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield…
…do your eyes bounce, at all, to the words “blighted” or “renewed,” “blossoms” or “spring,” before you stop, align your vision, and read the first word first?
I do this all the time. Just about every page of a book, no matter how drawn in I am to its prose, arc or narrative, I first see in a burst of words, like stepping outside into bright light from dark before you adjust and shades and tones appear.
I always thought this was a a function of my mania (in case you don’t know or hadn’t read my blog until this point, I’ve been diagnosed with mania from a younger age; but it’s not contagious so rest easy, paranoids–more on my own madness later), but scanning through Psyblog today, I discovered something interesting about how peripheral vision works that may mean that this isn’t just a singular phenomenon (aka mine):
Naturally, the brain edits information coming from the eyes, because only a portion of it is useful for us.It’s like a film director who doesn’t bother showing you the hero going to sleep or brushing his teeth.
To follow the story, what you need is the salient details, and that is what the brain is trying to give you: the edited version of the most useful visual facts.
However, what this study suggests is that even information that isn’t that useful or relevant is still being processed in the brain for meaning.
The study is a fantastic reminder that what we see is the result of an extremely complicated editing and filtering process.
This made me wonder: am I capable of reading whole pages in one visual shot? I know that sounds ridiculous in a certain matter-of-fact way, but this study actually outlines that we–in fact–do see everything at once, and in order to comprehend it we mentally focus in order to clarify.
Given this natural inclination, it’s perfectly acceptable to let the Dickens quote hit your eyes all at once. You are capable of seeing and understanding it as a whole, just as you’re capable of reading the words in order and allowing them to reveal their meaning to you. Maybe one context is deeper than the other… who’s to say which?
And as an point of book editing, this seems especially interesting to me… this research effectively means that readers are visually accepting whole pages at once, and that outstanding or irregular words or phrases may actually stand out more than we–as writers–think. Given this, tone and word choice suddenly seem outrageously important; even a small word or phrase could throw the whole thing off before the reader even gets to that part of your prose!
Seems like the best reason to fight for perfection I’ve ever read. Read in order, I mean.