Sighted people who read a novel are essentially blind. They don’t see the actual characters they’re reading about. They are also blind when they listen to the radio. However, the words they read or hear may trigger vivid pictures in their head.
As they read, sighted folks will unconsciously cast the good guy, the bad guy and the girl with specific features and expressions (especially from those sexy passages) based on previous images stored in their memory banks.
People, color, places and things come alive in our minds; we mentally assemble a person or animal or bus or autumn tree or white picket fence as our unconscious pulls from our stockpiled memories.
Of course, the imagined characters in your head don’t match the real ones. You go to see the movie adapted from the novel and say, “Yikes! I didn’t picture Portnoy looking like that!” Or you hear the jazz musician’s deep raspy voice on the radio and conjure up a large, big-cheeked bald headed dude and then see him on some late night talk show a month later and he’s a little man with brown curly hair and narrow eyes.
At times, imagination can be more satisfying than the real thing.
Perhaps you’ve been speaking to a business associate for months on the phone and when you finally meet for the first time, the nice smile you imagined is loaded with bad teeth or the long skinny fingers you pictured suddenly become fat clammy hands.
Having now lived the first half of my life sighted and the second half as a blind man, I often reflect on the transition from being sighted to being blind – what I saw and didn’t see during those transition years. When you gradually go blind, there is that grey period when you wonder if you saw things or if it was, as the song says, “just my imagination running away with me.”
Since imagination and the real world are two different places, in which world was I living? And which had the better view?
That five year period of time when I was losing the remainder of my sight started around the release of the first Star Wars movie. I still wonder if it was in my eyes or my imagination where I first saw C-3PO and R2-D2. In my recollection is a tall metallic guy next to an industrial looking vacuum cleaner, the sci-fi equivalent of Laurel and Hardy.
So now my day-to-day world is pretty much like a big radio that’s always on – disembodied people becoming three-dimensional in my head. I speak with somebody and their voice takes physical shape – my imagined image often quite a bit more colorful than the actuality. I recall working with Donna many years ago. She had a rough voice and smelled of cigarettes and drove our service truck. Yep, now you’ve got the picture. So when she gave me her smooth and petite hand to shake one day, I was flummoxed – she instantly transformed from someone with half a Y chromosome into a princess in distress.
Even though the reality doesn’t match the imagination, I often find people expecting me to be spot on when describing some person I just met, as if they are in the presence of a sorcerer. I must admit, I have resorted to artifice at times, asking a friend to secretly describe the new person to me first so when I’m later asked to give their description, I nail it and amaze the chumps gathered around to hear me wax on like some wizard.
Heck, even in college when I couldn’t see so well, I’d ask a pal for the specifications of the coed I was chatting up so that at the opportune time, I could tell her what she looked like, Impress her with my paranormal powers, and maybe get lucky.
So while you sighted folks read your novels, we blind guys listen to our talking books and converge on our imaginations, where sight has no advantage for either of us.