What We See When We Read

What We See When We Read

by Peter Mendelsund


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804171632
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 214,488
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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.

Read an Excerpt

“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


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.



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 talking about the  memory of having read.*

And this memory of reading is a false memory.

*William James describes the impossible attempt to introspectively examine our own consciousness as "trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks."

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What We See When We Read 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SecondRunReviews More than 1 year ago
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund is a uniquely crafted book and uniquely written book. With a large typeface and lots of pictures, 419 page book doesn’t take long to read. Did I like the book? There are some interesting thoughts here and there scattered throughout the book, but mostly Mendelsund seems to repeat the same thing over and over again. In quick summary… "We are what we read. Reading is as individual to the reader as it is to the writer. As a reader, we can never know the mind of the writer and we will never know the full scope of the novel in our hands." But is it a good book? It’s repetitious and too easily skimmed. As an English major, an avid reader and having friends who are avid readers, I felt like I knew and/or agreed with most of his conclusions. As a result, I didn’t learn anything new which is the main reason I reach for non-fiction books. So for the individual voracious reader, I would give What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund a thumbs down. However, this might make an excellent book for a book club discussion. Based on the points that Mendelsund presents, I imagine it could lead to a lively discussion between club members regarding how different people see different characters, places and things in a commonly read book. Did everyone that read The Hunger Games see a yellow-orange cat and then silently (or not so silently in my case) rage when they saw the first movie? For the individual reader who is looking to examine how they read, or for the book club looking for a potentially lively philosophical discussion this book could be a thumbs up. For the practiced (and/or trained) reader, this book, in my opinion, doesn’t hold much value and gets a thumbs down. This review was originally posted on Second Run Reviews.