What We See When We Read

by Peter Mendelsund

Paperback, 2014

Call number

028 MEN



Vintage (2014), 448 pages


"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"--… (more)

Media reviews

To his credit, Mr. Mendelsund keeps his tone light while thinking deliberately about fundamental things. He moves from a remembered family trip along a river, for example, to a sense that, as he writes, “Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader.”

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
I have such mixed feelings about this book. To be honest, I had kind of a problem with it even before I started reading it. It's that "we" in the title. The thing is, I am really, really not a visual person. I have a poor visual memory and an even poorer visual imagination. When I read, I tend not to see anything at all. At most, if I have some reason to really try to conjure up an image of something I'm reading -- which, generally, I don't -- what I get is extremely vague and ephemeral, like the memory of a memory of something that might have once been an image.

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.)
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LibraryThing member joeldinda
An exploration of perception, mostly but not entirely focused on the act of reading. It's an interesting book, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm unlikely to read it again.

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....… (more)
LibraryThing member ashleytylerjohn
This was a very nice, super-fast read (many pages had only a sentence, a paragraph, or a picture), that I enjoyed very much. While engaging for the hour or so it took to read, it's not very substantial--it's almost entirely the author's thoughts on the subject, rather than, say, a weightier tome with research, the results of experiment, etc. So you end up reading and nodding, agreeing often, sometimes shaking your head "No, it's not quite like that for me," but none of it really matters.

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).
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LibraryThing member detailmuse
A renowned book-cover artist explores how our senses (mostly sight) are evoked while reading. I was underwhelmed. With its composition of 90% images/white space and 10% text, I was expecting originality and aha moments, but really there’s not much here. It seems like a book from the ‘70s or ‘80s (©2014), and the examples mostly come from a few classic works of literature (old classics).

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.
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LibraryThing member eachurch
This book is dangerously close to being about the philosophy of language. It is explores a number of interesting questions in an engaging, and highly entertaining manner.
LibraryThing member Berly
[What We See When We Read], by Peter Mendelsund was truly brilliant, beautiful, and artistic, both in word and image. Mendelsund is a renowned artist, and the book is undoubtably visually striking. The pictures enhance his arguments very nicely and are humorous, gorgeous, and/or informative, depending on the point he wants to illustrate. The book is all about getting us, the reader, to think about how we read. How do we visualize the characters from the clues the writer gives us? Consciously, unconsciously? Constant interpretation or fleeting and fast decisions? Do we conceive of characters and places solely based on our experiences or can we extrapolate beyond ourselves? Fascinating to see just how deeply this artist reads, but then again, perhaps not. How else could he design such amazing book covers?

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!
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LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A creative, often witty meditation on the reader's imagination but the book goes on long after the novelty wears thin.
LibraryThing member angiestahl
Beautifully illustrated. Some nice points, but with a runtime of about 50 pages too long. It runs out of new idea-fuel and sputters toward a conclusion.
LibraryThing member bostonian71
This book is a little too artsy and idiosyncratic for its title. It’s really meditations by Mendelsund on what *he* sees when he reads various classics, and very little of his philosophizing has actually stuck with me. The visuals are gorgeous, but there are so many of them they tend to overwhelm the text instead of supplementing it. It’s also ironic, as the author acknowledges, that a book that is supposedly about individual people’s perceptions keeps forcing readers to see exactly what he wants them to see.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bodagirl
An interesting theory about the experience of reading. I loved how the book was put together with a mix of graphics and traditional text, but the theory itself drifted here and there. So much so, that it came off as more musing than theory.
LibraryThing member yvonne.sevignykaiser
Fascinating look at what we see when we read. We fill in the imagery gaps the author leaves for us. We may also believe the author has completed descriptions when that may not be the case.

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.
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LibraryThing member beetlebub2000
Beautifully illustrated. Some nice points, but with a runtime of about 50 pages too long. It runs out of new idea-fuel and sputters toward a conclusion.
LibraryThing member M.Campanella
This book is extremely sophomoric in its approach. I got the impression that the author thought he was the first person to ever write a phenomenology of reading.
LibraryThing member greeniezona
Oh, my Book Riot Quarterly Box always has the power to derail me. Even when I've just reorganized my to-read shelves, prioritized according to my progress on my various 2014 reading challenges. Who can resist the allure of shiny new surprise books? One of them I slipped into its proper place in the queue, but this one won me over immediately.

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.

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LibraryThing member lissabeth21
Fascinating look at what actually happens in our minds as we read. Particularly appreciated by me since I've never fully seen images or scenes from any book and I wondered if there was something "wrong" with me.
LibraryThing member kaylaraeintheway
This book, ostensibly a rumination on what it means to "read" something, is beautifully designed (which is no surprise, considering the author is the associate art director at Knopf); I thoroughly enjoyed how visual everything was, and so much was conveyed through the graphics (all of which are in black and white). That being said, I was unsure what exactly Mendelsund's main point was. There are some beautiful passages about memory and imagination, and I nodded in agreement at a few points, but now I am kind of struggling to "summarize" what this book was about. Maybe that's the point; it's more of a mediation on reading rather than a scientific deep-dive. Overall, I enjoyed this unique book and will keep it on my shelf, if only to peruse the stunning visuals.… (more)
LibraryThing member Shannon.Allen
I couldn't read more than 1/3 of this book, and that was pushing it. The style was offputting for me, with the words and pictures all over the place. I also felt the message was a bit redundant and I wasn't getting anywhere new as i kept turning the pages.
LibraryThing member DelightedLibrarian
Fascinating book about the science of reading. What do we actually do when we read.

"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."

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LibraryThing member AmaliaGavea
My mother has a most unusual reading habit. She is an avid reader and is able to finish a 500 page book in a day. This is not the strange thing here. What is beyond surprising is the fact that she doesn't form ''pictures'' in her head as she reads. She reads the words but doesn't feel the need to ''play out'' the action using her imagination. Also, she claims that writing essays was her weakest part at school. Her function of imagining things has always been below average. No wonder she is the most pragmatic person I know. Me, on the other hand? I am the complete opposite. If I cannot form the scenes in my mind, if I find it difficult to be the ''director'' of the book I read, then I know I can form no connection to the action or the characters. Even when I read non-fiction, I feel compelled to ''see'' the events described in my head.

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.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
A discussion of what goes on in our minds and our brains when we read. The text interacts with the illustrations, though I'll admit that sometimes I didn't fully understand how they were meant to do so. A lot of interesting points, and the book made me think a good deal, but in the end I was a bit disappointed. I would have liked more consideration of actual science, I guess, along with the anecdotal discussion and the references to the way readers and writers have talked about this subject before. Well worth reading, but still doesn't quite hit the mark.… (more)




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