Friday, January 02, 2015

What We See When We Read

What We See When We Read: a phenomenology with illustrations / Peter Mendelsund
New York: Vintage, c2014.
419 p.

What better way to begin a readerly year than by sharing a book on the phenomenology of reading? Do you ever puzzle over the process of reading -- wonder how we actually do it, how we take a story and bring it to life? Then pick this up for some inspiration.

I loved this book; it was one of my top reads of 2014. It's an odd little book full of brief chunks of text interspersed with varied illustrations, all to embody the message of the book itself. How do we see when we read -- how do we perceive, make words on paper into a fully elaborated mental world?

It's a book best read in short bursts, I think. Read a section, take in the way Mendelsund has used the book design to emphasize his ideas, and think about it yourself for a while. Return and read some more.

The style and illustration may be too much if taken in all at once; they may overwhelm the intent of the book. And that is to be avoided at all costs -- this book needs to be appreciated.

Mendelsund is very intelligent, very aesthetically particular. He was a concert pianist before he became a book cover designer, and one of the best, at that. His varied artistic practice shows in the elements he highlights here. He points out that description in novels is vague; we don't know exactly what Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary looks like, we take the authorial hints and fill it in ourselves. And how is that done? He has many comments on the process we take to get there. He also discusses the fact that as our culture becomes more and more visually saturated, reading is not disappearing; rather, it's one way we can experience culture without having to see very much at all.

I was very fortunate to be able to meet Peter Mendelsund this fall, when a library committee that I'm on invited him to speak at an event we were hosting. He is intimidatingly brilliant in person, yet also friendly and funny. I'd already read this in preparation for that event (and loved it) so I'm not recommending it just for the author's sake, despite how impressed with him we all were ;)

It's a book I've been dipping into again and again over the last few months, thinking about an angle he takes on a particular part of reading, pondering my own thoughts. It's a great book for the habitual reader. Lots to think about here, whether you agree or disagree with his aesthetic.

Me, delighted to meet Peter Mendelsund
Further Reading:

If you like the idea of examining the interior process of reading, with more of an emphasis on the actual design features of a book (including typefaces) than the content itself, try Gerard Unger's While You're Reading.

If you're more intrigued by the psychological pretzels we twist ourselves into in order to comprehend text as living story, check out a neuroscientist's approach to the physical setup we have developed that makes reading possible, in Proust & the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf


  1. This does sound like a fascinating book about reading, Melwyk. Good writing creates images or pictures (of settings, characters, etc.) in our imaginations. (We do not need to be overwhelmed with actual images.) Lovely review!

    1. Yes, it's true. This book gives you so much to think about! Hope you find yourself a copy.

  2. Wow this sounds very intersting.

    1. So interesting. One you can keep referring back to.

  3. Ooh this sounds great! I love books like this. And how cool you got to meet the author!

    1. You would definitely like this one. And I always (well, almost always) enjoy meeting the author... this time was especially great :)


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