What We See When We Read

Author(s): Peter Mendelsund

Literary Criticism & Essays & Journalism

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.

This book was incredible and a must-read for any bibliophile. It explores what we picture when we read novels, in particular focusing on characters. Mendelsund is a graphic designer who specialises in book covers, so the design of this book is superlative. Filled with maps, drawings and diagrams, each page is a pleasure and a surprise. I devoured this book. It made me think really deeply about what I visualise when I’m reading, and my only complaint was that it wasn’t longer. - Holly

Interesting! Peter Mendelsund has designed some of the best book covers of recent years, and one of the reasons that they are so successful is that they arise from his careful reading of the texts. In this book, which reminds me of Ways of Seeing and The Medium is the Massage in its interplay of image and text giving an appealingly light touch to a heavy subject, he is particularly interested in the visual effects of reading. These visual effects are non-optical and comprise mental images fished into awareness by the ‘unseen’ black hooks of text; they are the fictional correlative of the visual effects fished into awareness by ‘actual’ optical stimulation. I suppose a difference between reading text and reading actuality is that when reading text the scope of our awareness has been set for us by the authority of the author (our surrogate self), whereas actuality is undifferentiated and incomprehensibly overstimulative and the necessary repression of stimuli in the reading of it is dependent on personality, conditioning, socialisation and practicality. Emphasising that he is interested in the experience of reading rather than the memory of reading (if such a distinction can be sensibly made), Mendelsund treats in depth an aspect of what I would call ‘the problem of detail’: what is the role of the reader in ‘completing’ the text? Whereas the reader’s ‘actual’ experiences of course inform and colour their reading of detail, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Mendelsund’s opinion that when reading we ‘flesh out’ characters in our imagining of them or place them in ‘familiar’ contexts – while we are reading we may well also indulge in such extra-textual self-massage, but I don’t think that this is the reading itself. - Thomas

—Hey Max, has Hamlet got ears?
—Um, well, I guess.
—What? And who do you think you are? Mr Shakespeare, I presume? You leave Hamlet alone! It’s not up to you to decide.
—Well, we aren’t told that he hasn’t got ears.
—So? We aren’t told that he has! Confine yourself to the text, Max, that’s all there is. Not much.
—Or too much.
—Well, what about the ears? How am I supposed to think about Hamlet?
—You’re not supposed to think about his ears. That’s none of your business! Confine yourself to the text: that’s all you are permitted.
—But you asked about his ears!
—Yeah. I tricked you. Ha ha ha.




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Product Information

Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and a recovering classical pianist. His designs have been described by "The Wall Street Journal" as being "the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction." He lives in New York.

General Fields

  • : 9780804171632
  • : Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • : Bantam Books Inc
  • : July 2014
  • : 203mm X 135mm
  • : August 2014
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : en
  • : 448
  • : black and white images throughout
  • : Peter Mendelsund
  • : Paperback