Book Review: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

20758127What 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 thinks of 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.

Rating: 8/10

I had an interesting relationship with this book. The first part of the book (and by first part I mean the first 60 pages) talked about how we seem to believe that we have an exact image in our head of the characters we are reading about, when in reality, we picture very specific things, but the rest is more of a blur. This wasn’t necessarily mind-blowing since I had come to this conclusion a while ago. However, the rest of this book was full of some intriguing ideas that were fun to think about. I put lots of stickys in my book for some further reflection later.

Most of the book feels more like a reflection on how we perceive what we are reading rather than actual research. Of course, research was involved in the making of this book I’m sure, but Mendelsund doesn’t regurgitate facts at us. Rather, he approaches the subject as someone who reads books. This gives us a feeling of having a discussion with him about reading rather than having someone tell us about reading. It makes for a more enjoyable experience.

Mendelsund’s experience in book design becomes obvious as he finds new and interesting ways to visually display his points on the page using images and various font and typeface treatments. For this reason, the actual book is rather shorter than it looks since much of the space on the page is taken up by Mendelsund’s creative visual representation of the words on the page. I read the book in about three hours with me stopping to reflect on some of his points.

Overall, this book does a good job of both explaining and demonstrating what it is we see we read. The layout of the pages sometimes comes off as disjointed, which is basically, according to Mendelsund, how we read. Reading isn’t linear and neat, much like this book, and the visual representation of this fact comes off well.

It’s an interesting book for avid readers and one that will keep you thinking long after you put it down.

 

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