We live in a very visual world, so it is no surprise that technology has enabled us to manipulate and create images to such a high standard. Just think of films and games today, and the way they place characters in worlds so fantastically rendered that they leave our own seem flat by comparison. Combine that with state-of-the-art sound design, and place all that within a narrative structure (be that passive or active), and it is no wonder that so many people are drawn to the spectacle and the immersion of films and games.
Yet reading is still a popular activity. There are many (myself included) who would rather spend an evening with a novel than watching a film. We get more (or maybe a different kind of) enjoyment from words on a page than from moving images on a screen, even when they are accompanied by dialogue, music and sound effects.
Our minds are incredible. From a few words, we can conjure a whole scene—and we are not only limited to visuals. We can read a short scene set in a cafe, and in our minds we taste the bitterness of the coffee, we feel the softness of the sponge in the cakes. We hear the accents of those around, muffled by the sizzling of a frying pan and the gurgling of a coffee machine. We feel the muggy heat and the cold air that washes in when someone opens the door. And we add details of our own too—the man at the next table has a shaving cut by his left ear, the woman just leaving has her coat buttoned up wrong, someone has put a wet spoon in the sugar bowl and there is a congealed lump in one corner.
And this scene will be unique to us. Someone else, reading exactly the same words, will see, hear, smell, touch, taste something different.
It’s called imagination, and it’s a big part of what makes us human.
It’s also very natural. When children play, their games are filled with imagination—a few scraps of coloured paper get placed in a wooden box, and they become a meal to be shared with friends no adult can see. A few stuffed toys have adventures in far-flung places without ever leaving the four walls of the bedroom. Tiny cars travel a world that is only flat to our eyes—to the child, it is a vast city, filled with people going about their strange and wonderful lives.
Imagination is more than inventing world—it is a way to understand the world we live in. If we do not know how something works, we use our imaginations to search for a possible answer, and then we test that answer. In a situation we’re unfamiliar with, we use our imagination to play through different outcomes. Imagination allows us to as ‘what if…?’ And that is the question that leads to so, so much.
Albert Einstein said:
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’
When Henry Ford was asked what he thought of asking customers for their opinions, said:
‘If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’
Imagination allows us to break free from the regular world and leap to new ideas. Think of any invention—central heating, the printing press, Facebook, the lightbulb—and you will find imagination at their genesis. Throughout history, milestones have occurred because people with imagination asked ‘what if?’ and followed where that question led them.
We see those who invent and discover these wonders as geniuses, and we admire them. We believe we can never be like them.
But why can’t we? Maybe we don’t have the theoretical knowledge, or the design skills, or other specialised knowledge, but if their ideas came from their imagination, we have that, don’t we? Yes, we might have grown out of the habit of using it, putting off ‘childish play’ when the adult world seemed to demand more certainty, but imagination is not in finite supply. We can develop our imagination, just as we can develop our memories, or our muscles. The more we use our imagination, the stronger it becomes. Then, when we are in a new place or an unfamiliar situation, we can use our imagination to see possibilities, and to guide us. Maybe, our imagination will show us a way of combining ideas, or will hint at a way of filling a gap in our own lives and the lives of others. Maybe, if we allow our imagination to run, we can see something special.
So it is useful to develop our imaginations, and one of the best ways of doing this is through reading. When we watch films we can be passive, letting the story flood over us. But when reading, we have to use our imaginations. Those squiggles on the page need translating into scenes and characters and actions.
But the development of our imaginations doesn’t end with the reading itself. A good story draws us in, and we are there, inside the narrative, living vicariously through the characters. We start to imagine how we would act. We imagine what we might do differently. Sometimes, if a story stays with us for long enough, our imaginations build a whole world around it.
Fan-fic is an example of this—people who are so immersed in their favourite story-worlds that they create brand new stories, taking the characters to places the original writer probably never imagined. And then, maybe, the imagination continues, and the reader develops new characters and settings, and imagines original stories of their own (or, if you believe there are only a limited number of stories in the world, they imagine original retellings of these stories.)