I don’t quite understand what it means to read without imagining. I mean, your brain is at least doing the work of stitching together cause-and-effect and getting interested in the characters and their personalities, I presume? Otherwise fiction would not bring much pleasure?
Are you saying that when someone describes a tree you don’t visualize a tree in your mind’s eye, etc.? Is it specifically a sensory recreation of the story unfolding that you don’t engage in?
I’m not sure I do, either – at least not to any great extent. When Dickens writes:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
I don’t think I expend much mental energy in forming a picture in my head of what the mud looks like, or what the Megalosaurus looks like, or anything else. Yet the passage gives me great pleasure to read and in some sense serves its function of “setting the scene” (as well as establishing Dickens’s inimitable third-person narrative voice, and setting up a metaphorical point about the court of Chancery that pays off in the subsequent paragraphs). I feel that the words themselves are standing-in for the picture, if that makes any sense. Dickens has already done the hard work.
I do however construct vague impressions of characters in my head, not so much that I could draw their faces, but so that, for instance, I instantly know that Donald Sutherland was all wrong to play Mr. Bennett in Pride & Prejudice and James Broadbent would have been better.