"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"--"An illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading"--
Mendelsund, though, starts right off with the assertion that when "we" read, "we" think there's a movie playing in "our" heads. Which, uh... no. Not this portion of "we," anyway. He then suggests that this perception may be somewhat illusory, that mental imagery is not as vivid or as coherent as "we" think, so, OK, maybe I get to have a little moment of triumph, telling myself that I'm the only one who experiences this honestly. I don't think that's quite it, though, and Mendelsund continues right along making assertions about how everybody has these images in their heads and can't not have them.
There is one point where, unexpectedly, he captures my own experience perfectly: "If we don't have pictures in our minds when we read," he says, finally acknowledging this as a possibility, "then it is the interaction of ideas -- the intermingling of abstract relationships -- that catalyzes feeling in us readers." Yes! Yes, that is what reading is like for me! Except then he adds, "This sounds like a fairly unenjoyable experience..." Which... Wait, what? Admittedly, he then goes on to compare that to listening to music, a non-visual experience which nobody devalues, but I can't help feeling a little insulted, anyway. (And even if I didn't feel excluded from what he seems to be putting forth as a universal experience, even if a partly illusory one, I think I'd be wondering just what he's basing these generalizations about how reading works on. Has he sent out surveys? Have scientific studies been performed? Or is he just making assumptions based on his own experiences?)
The book itself is also intensely visual, with illustrations -- some only related to what he's talking about in vague or abstractly suggestive ways -- interspersed and intertwined with bite-sized blocks of text. Sometimes I found this clever and visually striking, and sometimes I thought it kind of pretentious and wished he'd spent less time playing around with images and more time unpacking the things he was saying in the text.
And yet, despite the fact that much of the supposedly universal experiences he's describing are alien to me, there is a lot in here that actually does resonate with my own experiences of reading, however non-visually, and a lot that feels insightful, or at the very least thought-provoking. So even though its assumptions and over-generalizations irritated me a little, in the end I am glad enough to have read it.
(Now, if someone wants to write a book called What We Hear When We Read, I will totally be there.)
Ebook note: This heavily-formatted book is nearly unreadable on an eInk reader--in my case, a Nook Glowlight--but worked pretty well on my tablet. This was not unexpected, actually....
So I didn't feel I actually learned something, although it was fun to read someone else's thoughts on a process that I've often stopped to think about. And his central premise (you don't really picture characters/sets/props etc., just fuzzy feelings that you indeed do picture them) isn't true for me--I remember distinctly reading The Princess Bride for the first time, and a young Cady McClain from All My Children was rescued by a young Errol Flynn, of course.
(Note: 5 stars = amazing, wonderful, 4 = very good book, 3 = decent read, 2 = disappointing, 1 = awful, just awful. I'm fairly good at picking for myself so end up with a lot of 4s).
If I summarize my takeaways, they’re that: 1) what we see when we read is that which we’ve experienced ourselves and the writer tapped it (thus writer and reader are co-creators); and 2) what we remember is not necessarily that which was well-described but that which has significance either to the story or to our own lives.
Now, just an excerpt or two to further tempt you…
“Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random details (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in the gaps. We shade them in. We glass over them. We elide.”
“…this technique, the use of epithets, may be the method through which we define the (actual) people around us…we push an attribute of theirs to the fore; we “foreground” a piece of them and then let that piece suffice….“ Think of Anna Karenina. “What does she look like? We don’t know—our mental sketches of characters are worse than police sketches.” (Which is then provided on the next page—fun, huh? A police sketch of Anna Karenina!)
“Hera’s (oxen) eye’s are an instance of metonymy…
But more specifically, Hera’s eyes are an instance of synecdoche—a synecdoche is a metonym in which the part refers to the whole.
For instance: Men (sailors) can become “Hands…” “All hands on deck!” Or “nice wheels…”
I read this book slowly, to savor it and to let it sink in. You can read it however you want, but do it!
Each person who reads a book reads from their own perspective as they develop their reading habit. Great read for book clubs or anyone who wants to further what they get out the stories they read. Would also make a great teaching tool.
Received my copy from Quarterly - Book Riot #4 (February 2015) and had seen it on many reading lists, I also picked up another copy to share with friends, My copy also included additional author notes which I will continue to add to each time I read this book.
This book is about something I've thought a lot about lately. Well, it's about many things. It's about the experience of reading, about how that experience is co-created by the words on the page, and your life experiences up until that point, it's about memory, imagination, what we "see" (in the mind's eye) when we read -- but more specifically, who we see. How we imagine the characters' appearances, how we remember those characters. And do we remember or imagine them as well as we think we do?
I found this book incredibly relatable and perfectly comforting. For much of my life I have thought that my powers of imagination were lacking. I cannot "see" things in my imagination the way that others say they can or exhort me to do. Especially with all the fandom whining in past years as books have been adapted to movies and the protest goes up, "But that person looks nothing like what I'd imagined!" This book assures me that my experience, the partial pictures, the details that blur when focused on, that these are the norm.
A fun feature of my Book Riot edition is that, in addition to the very clever illustrations that already make up this book, there are a number of photocopied handwritten annotations included post-it style throughout the book. I really loved some of those little asides, and it makes me sad to think that if I induce anyone to buy or check out this book that they will miss out. (You can't have my copy. Not even to borrow. Don't even think about it.) (Also: Still, get it anyway!)
But really, as wonderful as the text is, I can't do any justice to the illustrations here. Not the maps of various novels, not the attempts to map how the eye moves within the text in a page, and certainly not the AHAB(TM) video game controller. Just go find a copy of this book and flip through it. If that doesn't sell it to you, probably nothing will.
"When we apprehend the world (the parts that are legible to us), we do so one piece at a time. These single pieces of the world are our conscious perceptions. What these conscious perceptions consist of, we don't know, though we assume that our experience of the world is an admixture of that which is already present, and that which we ourselves contribute (ourselves- our memories, opinion,s proclivities, and so on).
"Authors are curators of experience. They filter the world's noise and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can - Out of disorder they create narrative... our brains will treat a book as if it were any other of the world's many unfiltered, encrypted signals... 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... the practice of reading feels like, and IS like, consciousness itself: imperfect, partial; hazy; co-creative."
This is the premise of Peter Mendelsund extraordinary book. He attempts to explain what our mind ''sees'' as we read. How do we form the faces of the characters? Which are the words that take centre-stage in our mind and drive the action forward? Why one reader says ''oh, that's not the Anna Karenina I had in mind'', while another claims that ''she's just how I imagined her to be?'' All these and more are included in What We See When We Read. I really enjoyed reading this book, it made me contemplate on a lot of our functions as readers, and whether our mind sometimes works independently.
Don't let the number of pages dissuade you. This is a book that every reader has to read.