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What We See When We Read
Cover of What We See When We Read
What We See When We Read
Borrow Borrow
A San Francisco Chronicle and Kirkus Best Book of the Year
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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
A San Francisco Chronicle and Kirkus Best Book of the Year
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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book

    "A proposition is a picture of reality. a proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it."--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

    "I don't think I shall ever forget my first sight of Hercule Poirot. of course, i got used to him later on, but to begin with it was a shock... i don't know what i'd imagined ... of course, i knew he was a foreigner, but i hadn't expect- ed him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what i mean. When you saw him you just wanted to laugh! he was like something on the stage or at the pictures."
    --Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia

    "Writing ... is but a different name for conversation. as no one, who knows what he is about in good compa- ny, would venture to talk all; so no author, who under- stands the just boundaries of decorum and good breed- ing, would presume to think all: the truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself."
    --Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

    "Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do, deceiving elf."
    --John Keats, Ode to a Nightengale


    PICTURING
    "PICTURING"


    i could begin with Lily Briscoe.

    Lily Briscoe--"With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered up face..."--is a principle character in Vir- ginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative--a painting of mrs. Ramsey sitting by the window reading to her son James. lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property.

    She is nervous about being interrupted, about some- one breaking her concentration whilst engaged in this delicate act. the idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable.

    But kind, acceptable mr. Bankes wanders up, exam- ines her work, and asks "What did she mean to indi- cate by the triangular purple shape, 'just there'?" it is meant to be mrs. Ramsey, reading to her son, though "no one could tell it for a human shape."

    Mother and child then--objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty--might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow...

    Mother and child: reduced.

    We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf's novel.) We are only told about it.

    Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.)

    ***

    This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. the painting is lily's depiction of the tableau in front of her--her reading of it.

    i cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture.

    i cannot see Lily herself.

    The scene and its occupants are blurred.

    Strangely, the painting seems more...vivid.

    ***

    FICTIONS

    What do we see when we read?

    (Other than words on a page.)

    What do we picture in our minds?

    There is a story called "reading."

    We all know this story.

    It is a story of pictures, and of picturing

    The story of reading is a remembered story. When we read, we are immersed. And the more we are immersed--the more we are preoccupied--the less we are able, in the moment, to bring our analytic minds to bear upon the experience we are absorbed in. Thus, when we discuss the feeling of reading, we are really...

About the Author-
  • 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.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 29, 2014
    Knopf associate art director Mendelsund, praised for creating the "most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction," here takes readers on an investigation—heavy on graphics, relatively light on text—into the optical world behind words. With humility, humor, and acuity, the book proposes that, much as a piece of fiction might describe a character or world, we can't ever know for sure what the author actually envisioned–and that's just as well, because the original conception might not be nearly as appealing as our own. Mendelsund depicts reading retention as a process of visual mutation, during which we edit and keep only what holds significance for us, rather than preserving realistic and fixed pictures. Thus, Flaubert changes Madame Bovary's eye color throughout the novel, and Tolstoy does the same to Karenin's ear size—not at random, but in proportion to Anna's dissatisfaction with him. Using such graphic aids as charts, photographs, and paintings, Mendelsund demonstrates why authors regularly leave out details and contradict themselves. Though his central point—that it's fortunate that we cannot see the novel's images like we do a film's—may seem simple in retrospect, readers will exponentially expand upon their understanding of linguistics and imagination through this well-crafted guide.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from June 1, 2014
    An artist investigates how we make meaning from words on a page.In this brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art, Knopf associate art director and cover designer Mendelsund inquires about the complex process of reading. "Words are effective not because of what they carry in them," writes the author, "but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words 'contain' meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning...." Writers "tell us stories, and they also tell us how to read these stories," he writes. "The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much." Copiously illustrated with maps, doodles, works of art, plates from illustrated books, cartoons, book jackets, facsimiles of texts, photographs, botanical drawings and a few publicity shots of movie stars, the book exemplifies the idea that reading is not a linear process. Even if readers follow consecutive words, they incorporate into reading memories, distractions, predispositions, desires and expectations. "Authors are curators of experience," writes Mendelsund. "Yet no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers...readers' brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort." In 19 brief, zesty chapters, the author considers such topics as the relationship of reading to time, skill, visual acuity, fantasy, synesthesia and belief. "The Part & The Whole" presents lucidly the basic concepts of metaphor, with succinct definitions of metonymy and synecdoche. Throughout the book, Mendelsund draws on various writers, from Wittgenstein to Woolf, Tolstoy to Twain, Melville to Calvino, to support his assertion that "Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend our world."Mendelsund amply attains his goal to produce a quirky, fresh and altogether delightful meditation on the miraculous act of reading.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2014

    Knopf associate art director and book cover designer Mendelsund (Cover) has creatively combined nuggets of philosophy, the notion of the "reader," and art to expand playful, abstract ideas on what readers process to produce the multitude of feelings and meanings within a reading experience. The author sources his premise from such classics as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, James Joyce's Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Woolf's book gives Mendelsund lots of fodder for his analysis and rumination on reading from a phenomenological point of view. That is, the action of the eyes on the page, the work of memory, and the reader's mental play to fill in the gaps of reading with "images" and "pictures." Mendelsund doesn't create his premise in a vacuum. The intellectual backdrop for his thoughts is built on philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, literary readers such as Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov, and many poets. Surprisingly, Alberto Manguel, another well-known author on reading, is not mentioned. Mendelsund is a hungry reader who writes for hungry readers. His style is smart but not designed for the academy only. In addition, he layers his fragmented approach with images designed to "illustrate" his points, even as those points increase gradually their density as one reads the book. VERDICT This work was written for those who enjoy fully the creative experience of reading, and who read about reading. [See "Books for the Masses," Editors' BEA Picks, LJ 7/14, p. 28.]--Jesse A. Lambertson, Metamedia Management, LLC, Washington, DC

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    July 1, 2014
    Mendelsund designs striking book covers. He is also Knopf's associate art director, a classical pianist, and a columnist, and all of these creative endeavors inform his seemingly blithe yet extraordinarily discerning interpretation of the mental processes involved in his perhaps greatest passion, reading. How do we picture a character based on often piecemeal descriptions? What does Anna Karenina look like? Or Ishmael? By pairing clever illustrationsdrawings, collages, reproductions, and diagramsand a confiding, first-person narrative, Mendelsund coaches us in the mental gymnastics involved in simultaneously reading and thinking about what happens when we read. He celebrates the polydimensionality of reading, which stokes our imagination as we co-create the story by drawing on our own inner image library. Mendelsund even illuminates the central wonder of literature, its evocation of feelings and its articulation of what is meaningful and significant. Offhandedly brilliant, witty, and fluent in the works of Tolstoy, Melville, Joyce, and Woolf, Mendelsund guides us through an intricate and enlivening analysis of why literature and reading are essential to our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the spinning world.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Alexandra Alter, The New York Times "A playful, illustrated treatise on how words give rise to mental images. . . . Mendelsund argues that reading is an act of co-creation, and that our impressions of characters and places owe as much to our own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors. . . . [What We See When We Read] explore[s] the peculiar challenges of transforming words into images, and blend[s] illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory."
  • Los Angeles Times "Mendelsund, throughout this thought-provoking book, helps the lay reader contemplate text in ways you hadn't thought about previously."
  • The Boston Globe "A conversation piece, created to entice repeated thumb-throughs. . . . [The author is] a highly regarded book-jacket designer. . . . Reading is often considered (especially by those who don't love to do it) a passive activity. But Cambridge native Mendelsund . . . makes a nice case that it is, in fact, a kind of active collaboration. . . . What We See When We Read, itself a work of conceptual design, unfolds the author's ideas about what makes reading a creative, visual act all its own on pages--some packed with text, others just a line or two--that incorporate sketches, clip art, images of classic book covers and more."
  • The New York Review of Books "A welcome and fascinating new book."
  • Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel "The liveliest, most entertaining and best illustrated work of phenomenology you'll pick up this year. An acclaimed book-jacket designer and art director, Mendelsund investigates, through words and pictures, what we see when we read text and where those images come from. His breakdown of the reading and visualizing processes yields many insights. . . . Playfully, he offers us a police composite sketch of Anna, based on the description in Tolstoy's novel."
  • Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! "Wow. . . . Mendelsund has changed the way I think about reading. Like the Wizard of Oz tornado, Mendelsund's lucid, questing prose and his surprising, joyful visuals collide to create a similar weather system inside the reader. Not only are you carried off to Oz, but you're aware at every moment of the cyclonic action of your reader's mind and your reader's imagination. It's so smart, so totally original, so beautiful. This is the perfect gift for anyone who has ever blinked awake inside a book."
  • Kirkus "[Mendelsund] produces a kaleidoscopic, immersive experience that successfully combines text, graphics, illustrations, cover images and more into a cohesive whole. It's a book to be read, reread, shown to perspective graphic designers and shared."
  • The Rumpus "A deconstruction of the visual experience of reading, a heady mixture of philosophy and neuropsychology. . . . Peter Mendelsund is astonishingly good at what he does."
  • Chris Ware, author of Building Stories "Amazing. . . . Sparkling with verbal as well as visual wit and the personable exhilaration of one of the best conversations you've ever had, What We See When We Read opens one's eyes to that special brand of blindness which makes the vividness of fiction possible. It reads as if the ghost of Italo Calvino audited Vladimir Nabokov's literature class and wrote his final paper with the help of Alvin Lustig and the Radiolab guys."
  • BookPage "Quirky and fascinating. . . . Mendelsund draws our attention to things we may not be fully conscious of when we immerse ourselves in a narrative. . . . We See When We Read will make passionate readers think about things they may largely take for granted when absorbed in a book and spark further thoughts about what the pleasurable experience of reading is all about."
  • Coolhunting.com "Intriguing. . . . A truly remarkable book."
  • Shelf Awareness "A delightful treat for the avid reader. . . . [A] topsy-turvily illustrated marvel. . . . [Mendelsund] maps the dreamscape of reading to show us how the mirage dissolves under close scrutiny but its memory still burns brilliant. What a tangible magic books are!"
  • Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers "This is not a book, this is a sacred text. It inspires, it expands the mind, it proves that Mendelsund is a total freaking genius."
  • Jim Gleick, bestselling author of The Information "Brilliant. Peter Mendelsund has peered into our messy heads and produced an
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