I once belonged to a reading group where one member, no matter what book we were discussing, would invariably ask, “Who would you cast as . . . ?” In all fairness, he was a screenwriter, but his perennial need to graft the face of some Hollywood star onto a given character in a novel could be irritating. As I read Peter Mendelsund’s quirky and fascinating What We See When We Read, I came to the realization that this casting device may have been this reader’s imperfect way of visualizing what he was reading.

As a book cover designer for Alfred A. Knopf, Mendelsund’s day job is wedding a non-visual art form with images that somehow convey an author’s intentions (and sell books) to a potential reader. This occupation has certainly fueled his curiosity about what we see when we read. In his new book, Mendelsund draws our attention to things we may not be fully conscious of when we immerse ourselves in a narrative. How do we picture characters or settings? Authors often give us scant physical characteristics—the essence of a character can defy concrete description—so, do we really know, or should we care, what Ishmael or Queequeg look like? Are the places we imagine when reading drawn from our own landscape of memory rather than the quite possibly real places upon which the writer has based them—do we picture the banks of, say, the Mississippi, when a writer sets a scene by a river? In other words, how much of what we see in our minds while reading is shaped by an author’s intentions and how much simply by our own experience?

Using examples drawn from such classics as To the Lighthouse, Anna Karenina and Ulysses, Mendelsund explores the phenomenology of reading with a light and engaging touch. He strings lots of images throughout 400 intriguingly designed pages, illustrations that, ironically, underscore the futility of seeking a single answer to what we see and why we see it. He does touch upon the ideas of such experimental novelists as Robbe-Grillet and Calvino when exploring ways of seeing, but for the most part the book is a -user-friendly, thought-provoking riff on the elusive magic of reading.

“Authors are curators of experience,” Mendelsund suggests. “They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can—out of disorder they create narrative. They administer this narrative in the form of a book, and preside, in some ineffable way, over the reading experience. Yet no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers—no matter how diligently prefiltered and tightly reconstructed—readers’ brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort. . . . We take in as much of the author’s world as we can, and mix this material with our own in the alembic of our reading minds, combining them to alchemize something unique.”

Mendelsund says reading “works” because it feels like consciousness itself—a collaborate consciousness shared by writer and reader. What We See When We Read will make passionate readers think about things they may largely take for granted when absorbed in a book and spark further thoughts about what the pleasurable experience of reading is all about.


This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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