What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication Date: 2014
The Short Version:
An exploration in words and illustrations of how we visualize when reading.
Why I Read It:
A friend in my LibraryThing group talked about this book and it sounded fascinating.
From the publisher:
A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader.
What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page—a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so—and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved—or reviled—literary figures. In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf’s Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature—he considers himself first and foremost as a reader—into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.
I am a very visual learner and reader. For that reason I have always hated the standard reading group question of “who should play [Character X] in the movie?”. Don’t give me a movie tie-in book cover. I hate to have an image of an actor or actress get in the way of my brain creating an image of that character based on what the author tells me.
For that reason when I heard about this book I knew I wanted to read it. I loved that it was part text and part illustrations. Simply put, I loved this book and I need to buy a copy so I can go back to it again and again.
Reading this book reminded me of my favorite college philosophy class, Epistemology (the theory of knowledge). That class about how we know what we know was so much fun and this book was just as enjoyable and challenging.
I’m just going to share a few favorite quotes:
Mrs. Ramsay is speaking to her son, we are told. Is she, perhaps, seventy — and he fifty? No, we learn that he is only six. Revisions are made. And so on. If Fiction were linear we would learn to wait, in order to picture. But we don’t wait. We begin imaging right out of the gate, immediately upon beginning a book.
When my eyes are closed, the seen (the aurora borealis of my inner lids) and the imagined (say, an image of Anna Karenina) are never more than a volitional flick away from each other. Reading is like this closed-eye world — and reading takes place behind lids of a sort. An open book acts as a blind — its boards and pages shut out the world’s clamorous stimuli and encourage the imagination.
Occasionally I’ll meet someone I’ve heard a lot about and I might think to myself, You look nothing like what I imagined!
I have the same feeling with characters in novels when they are active before they are described.
Once reading of a book is under way and we sink into the experience, a performance of a sort begins . . .
We perform a book — we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance.
(As readers, we are both the conductor and the orchestra, as well as the audience.)
These images we “see” when we read are personal: What we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours.
Do yourself a favor. Find and read this wonderful book.