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Reviewed by Rebecca Hussey

The immediate effect of reading Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read was to make me want to pick up a novel right away and start thinking about what I was seeing as I turned the pages. And yet when I did pick up my next novel, prepared to think carefully about how I was experiencing it, I found myself becoming absorbed in the story and forgetting my intention entirely. This wouldn’t surprise Mendelsund at all:

“When we read, we are immersed. And the more we are immersed, the less we are able, in the moment, to bring our analytic minds to bear upon the experience in which we are absorbed. Thus, when we discuss the feeling of reading we are really talking about the memory of having read.

And this memory of reading is a false memory.”

Part of Mendelsund’s argument, which examines the relationship between a reader’s visual imagination and words on the page, is that many of our ideas about reading aren’t true to the actual experience of it. Our ideas of what characters look like are surprisingly vague and lengthy descriptive passages do little to make them more concrete. Authors create vivid characters by giving us only a few descriptive details and leaving the rest to our imaginations, so that rather than passively taking in description and building a picture in our minds as we go along, detail by detail, we actively seize on just a few suggestions from the author and summon up our own images. Writers tend to tell us what characters do rather than what they look like and when we try to describe characters from books we have recently read, we turn to descriptions of their actions rather than their appearance. When we think about our experience of reading, we tend to forget the complexity of it – the adjustments we made in our images of the characters as we went along, the way we weren’t simply reading sentence by sentence, but were thinking about what we had already read and anticipating what was to come next, all at once.

The experience of reading this particular book is an unusual one: it’s chock-full of photographs, drawings, sketches, graphs, and other kinds of images, all black and white. There generally isn’t a lot of text on each page, sometimes only a word or two. Mendelsund uses many different font sizes and types, which, along with the images, create the feeling that we are seeing Mendelsund’s mind at work as he thinks through the concepts. The book is more interested in asking questions and suggesting ideas rather than making a well-defended argument, a project that is well-served by the book’s format, which encourages slowing down and considering the ideas one by one. To say that the book is like Mendelsund’s personal writer’s notebook is to do it a disservice, as it is very well-crafted, but it feels as though the author is exploring ideas on the page, complete with sketches, doodles, concepts tried out and discarded, relevant quotations from outside reading, and, most of all, questions.

Readers coming to this book hoping for a thoroughly researched, carefully footnoted tome on the nature of reading will be disappointed, but it is perfect for anyone wanting to think more deeply on their own about how reading works. The abundant white space (or often black space) might frustrate some readers, but it can also encourage them to fill in the blanks with their own conclusions. For example, page 182 reads, in its entirety:

“Wittgenstein (this time in his Philosophical Grammar) writes:

‘We do sometimes see memory pictures in our minds: but commonly they are only scattered through the memory like illustrations in a story book.’

This sounds right to me, and can apply to imaging while reading as well – though the question remains:

What do we see during the unillustrated part of the story?”

On the facing page, there is no text but instead a picture of a nineteenth-century woman reading, with another woman at a slight distance looking over her shoulder. The picture might be one of the “memory pictures” Wittgenstein mentions, or it could simply be a woman absorbed in her book, creating mental images (or not) as she reads, embodying all that remains mysterious about the reading process. We can only see her from the outside and wonder what is going on in her brain, and, in an odd kind of way, we come to wonder what is going on in our own reading brains. Mendelsund has some thoughts about this, many of which are fascinating, but perhaps the chief pleasure of the book is the way he makes our own reading experience seem foreign and mysterious.

Mendelsund has thought deeply about the relationship between text and image in his capacity as a book cover designer. Accompanying the release of What We See When We Read is another book called Cover, a collection of book covers Mendelsund has designed. Both books emphasize process, in Cover’s case, the process of distilling the essence of a book into one all-important image that will come to represent the book itself. Cover includes rejected drafts as well as the finished work, short descriptions of the thought process behind the art, and brief essays by authors whose books Mendelsund has worked on. Mendelsund designed the cover image for What We See When We Read, which is simply the shape of a keyhole in gold on a black background along with the title and author. The image captures the book beautifully: it hints at the things books allow us to see but keeps the images themselves mysterious and alluring. The two books together are an excellent way to think about the role of the visual in an art form that seems to be entirely about concepts and abstractions.

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Rebecca Hussey is an English professor, blogger, reviewer, and, most of all, a reader. She blogs at Of Books and Bicycles.

Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read (Vintage, London, 2014) 978-0804171632, paperback original, 448 pages.

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