What We See When We Read

By Peter Mendelsund

When reading a novel, the words on the page are translated into images by our imagination. Movies do a lot of this work for us, making Anna Karenina look like Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, or Keira Knightley. But left to their own devices, every reader has to cobble together a totally unique Anna, an intensely personal creation that’s likely far removed from anything Tolstoy had in mind.

This is just the way language works. When we read a story we’re not (usually) looking at pictures, and any description is going to be fragmentary and open to further interpretation. Peter Mendelsund, a book designer, is fascinated by the resulting gaps. We tend to describe the act of reading as being akin to watching a movie, but when we read a novel what do we actually see? Very little.

Mendelsund could have written a dry tract on this subject, but his approach is more akin to that of pop philosophy writers such as Alain de Botton, while the book’s layout, with illustrations and quirky design features on every page, makes it consistently entertaining to look at if nothing else. It’s like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing for the fiction set.

Sticking mainly to classic texts like Anna Karenina, To the Lighthouse, and Moby Dick, Mendelsund tries various approaches to his subject, some more fruitful than others. His main thesis is that we only see fragments when we read fiction. We reduce reality’s “big picture,” which we then fill in with personal “readerly visions” that replace the visual with what we find, for whatever reason, significant.

The fog at the beginning of Dickens’s Bleak House, for example, refers to London’s actual fog as well as serving as a metaphor for both the legal system and the openings of books in general (that appear before us out of the fog of unknowingness that is all that we haven’t read yet). What this fog actually looks like, however, its visual effect, remains “completely indecipherable” to Mendelsund. He only sees its significance, what it means to him.

But in this particular reading then is he only seeing what he wants to see? Or expects to find? Or needs in order to make his argument? Or am I only filling in imaginary holes that I perceive in his explanation?

Much of What We See When We Read walks a fine line. It can drift, almost unnoticeably, from being challenging to being trivial, from saying something original to stating the obvious. But lovers of fiction will perhaps find something here that they’ve been looking for, as well as the inspiration to keep looking.

Review first published September 27, 2014.

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