Review: What We See When We Read

This book is blowing my mind.

If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, or a dream where you suddenly became lucid and realized it was a dream, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is a little like that.  Many of us readers claim to have mental movies of our favorite stories that played in our heads when we followed the written adventures.  We know these beloved characters like our own friends, like our own family.  Of course we can picture them!

But Mendelsund asks what their noses look like, and suddenly you concentrate too hard and the character suddenly becomes bits and pieces of specific description connected only by the hazy assumptions you make.

The book is as much a visual experience as it is a text, which is appropriate, considering Mendelsund sets out to challenge our concept of “seeing” when we read.  His text is creatively arranged on the pages, switching from black-on-white to white-on-black.  Some pages are blank.  Some have only one word.  Some squish the words together to literally illustrate his point about accumulating evidence about a mental picture as we progress through a book.  Illustrators’ interpretations of famous characters peer out from the book, sometimes half-hidden by more of Mendelsund’s words, or even by the descriptions from their own novels.

Reading anything else after spending a little time on one of Mendelsund’s chapters is like lucid dreaming.  You become very aware of the process your brain is going through to construct a mental image of the things represented only by printed characters on a page (or screen).  “Of course she has blonde hair, he said so, but what are her eyes like?” you think to yourself.  Mendelsund doesn’t just deal with physical characteristics either; he points out how the way we “see” characters changes depending on their actions as well.  Personally, I realized I had some placeholder characters in my head, a set of generic faces and figures that stand in and receive customization the more I get to know a character.

Even settings, which seem so obvious – it’s the background of all the action, of course I know what it looks like! – are revealed to be blurry at best, with a few stark details jumping out because they are motifs, or murder weapons, or somehow important to the plot.  My visions of Versailles (I’m currently reading America’s First Daughter and they’re in Paris right now) suddenly look like Impressionist paintings with a few photographs cut and pasted on by a two-year-old.

But it’s still magical that my brain can even construct that much out of symbols printed on paper.

Like any book that asks you to think about thinking, this is not something to tackle right before bed, or before you have to really use your brain for anything else.  But as a reader, and as someone who love to spread that love of reading around, I think it’s a process worth examining – and subsequently marveling at.  Because after all, Mendelsund only points out yet another reason that reading is amazing.

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