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Book review: ‘What We See When We Read’

By Jim Higgins
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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“What We See When We Read,” by Peter Mendelsund.

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  • Nonfiction

    What We See When We Read

    Peter Mendelsund

    Vintage Original, 448 pages



Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read” may be the most entertaining and best illustrated work of phenomenology you’ll pick up this year.

An acclaimed book jacket designer and art director, Mendelsund investigates, through words and pictures, what we see when we read text and where those images come from. His breakdown of the reading and visualizing processes yields many insights.

For example, readers of Tolstoy may feel intimately acquainted with Anna Karenina, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually picturing her as a person, Mendelsund writes:

“Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavior than physical description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Anna: her hair, her weight – these are facets only, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color. …What does Anna look like? We don’t know – our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.” Then, playfully, he offers us a police composite sketch of Anna, based on Tolstoy’s description.

Mendelsund expends some energy on the differences between seeing and understanding – devoted readers of a novel tend to understand more of a character than they see with their mind’s eye.

Although book-cover design is his trade, he argues against literal illustrations of fictional characters, seeing them as limiting.

He cites the frantic Kafka, worried that the publisher of “Metamorphosis” would try to show the insect form of Gregor Samsa on the cover: “Not that, please not that! The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.”

In one of this friendly book’s bitterest pages, Mendelsund posts an image of Keira Knightley in character as Anna K. and declares this picture “is a form of robbery.”

Discussing Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” Mendelsund notes that the pieces of information that could make up our image of a character in a novel may be introduced to us “out of order; the way a puzzle might be.” The novel opens with Mrs. Ramsay, undescribed, speaking to an unknown person.

“As we read on, Mrs. Ramsay becomes a collage, composed of clippings, like the ones in her son James’s book,” Mendelsund writes. “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.”

Mendelsund likens reading experiences to differences in the way we experience roads.

“If books were roads, some would be made for driving quickly – details are scant, and what details there are appear drab – but the velocity and torque of the narrative is exhilarating. Some books, if seen as roads, would be made for walking – the trajectory of the road mattering far less than the vistas these roads might afford. The best book for me: I drive through it quickly but am forced to stop on occasion, to pull over and marvel. These books are books meant to be reread.”

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