What We See When We Read


What do we see when we read?


 It’s a straightforward question, yet oddly it goes often ignored. I once worked in an office (it reminded me very much of The Office) with a  Ph.D.-in-Literature dropout. At graduate school she’d grown disillusioned with academia and with her fellow students, in particular. One thing she found perplexing about them was they didn’t “see pictures” while reading. Literature was all about concepts, discourse, ideology—and of course, for academics, it must be—but what, she wanted to know, about images, the imagination at work, the experience of reading?


Peter Mendelsund’s genre-skirting book, What We See When We Read, responds to the question in its own specialized way. On the dust jacket's inside the editors at Vintage call the book a “fully illustrated phenomenology.” Highbrow words for a general audience, yet I can’t think of a better gloss. Mendelsund, who is a book–jacket designer, an associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, and a classically trained pianist, explores what goes on visually in our minds when we read. His intent is to grasp what makes reading a “unique” experience. And by combining critical discussion with graphic design and autobiographical anecdotes, his book is itself unique.


Mendelsund is articulating much of what I already know about reading without knowing it, turning my unknown knowns into known knowns.


What We See When We Read comprises 19 sections: “Picturing ‘Picturing,’” “Fictions,” “Openings,” “Time,” “Vividness,” “Performance,” “Sketching,” “Skill,” “Co-Creation,” “Maps & Rules,” “Abstractions,” ‘Eyes, Ocular Vision, & Media,” “Memory & Fantasy,” “Synesthesia,” “Signifiers,” “Belief,” “Models,” “The Part & The Whole,” and “It Is Blurred.” Each section contains both illustrations and fragmented thoughts inscribed minimally, on blank white or black pages. The thoughts are so bare in both form they look naked. Actually, the cover of the book is adorned with an image of a keyhole—to read it is to peep into a private mind.


As if to welcome us in, Mendelsund writes inclusively. He’s fond of the short and the simple and he unabashedly uses the royal “we”:


When we read, we take in a whole eyeful of words. We gulp them like water.


We subscribe to the belief (we have faith) that when we read we are, passively, receiving visions…


The reading imagination reveals our own dispositions. The book has drawn them out of us.


You have a choice when reading the book. Accept Mendelsund’s anti-postmodern presumptuousness for any reason you can think of (it’s stylistically consistent, it’s humble, etc.) or shut it and read something else. Sticklers will no doubt find Mendelsund’s thoughts at times amateurish or outdated, particularly when he waxes philosophical. For the most part, though, Mendelsund’s equipped with a special set of skills for a literary thinker, and when he applies them directly to reading, the results delight and surprise. In one such passage, he likens reading to playing piano:


When we read, it is important that we believe we are seeing everything…When I play piano—as opposed to when I am listening to piano music—I don’t hear my mistake. My mind is too busy imagining an idealized performance to hear what is actually emanating from the instrument. In this sense, the performative aspects of playing the piano inhibit my ability to hear… Similarly, when we read, we imagine what we see.


While reading this and other similar passages I feel as though Mendelsund is articulating much of what I already know about reading without knowing it, turning my unknown knowns into known knowns.


When we read, time does not move linearly.


But back to the central questions. What, for Mendelsund, makes the experience of reading unique, and what do we picture in our minds when we read? As in negative theology, where one comes closer to defining god by defining what god is not, Mendelsund spends much time defining the experience of reading by defining what it’s not. Reading, he claims, is not entirely like watching a movie, though we do tend to remember it this way, as “a continuous unfolding of images.” Nor is reading like flipping through a comic book, dreaming, or listening to music, though it shares much in common with each. Reading is a “unique pleasure.”


To articulate what reading is, Mendelsund must rely on figurative language and analogies; To enter a book is to “enter a liminal space” that is “neither in this world, the world wherein you hold a book (say, this book), nor in that world (the metaphysical space the words point toward).” When we read, time does not move linearly; “Past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment—and in the performative reading moment as well.” Reading is at once an inward and outward activity; “When I read, I withdraw from the phenomenal world. I turn my attention ‘inward.’ Paradoxically, I turn outward toward the book I am holding, and, as if the book were a mirror, I feel as though I am looking inward.” Books are “reticent;” they seem to “safeguard mysteries.” The experience of reading is inherently reductive. “Picturing stories is making reductions.” Characters in books are, in Shakespeare’s words, “bodied forth” through action. As “a knife becomes a knife through cutting,” a character becomes a character through acting. As we read, we routinely readjust our impressions of characters. If a story begins with a scream, and a few pages later we learn that the scream came from a little girl, then our initial perception of the scream, a monotonous “AHHHH,” will be replaced by a high-pitched “AHHHH.”


To reduce and to blur
is to invite the imagination.


Above all else, reading is a unique experience because the mental pictures we form in the process are blurry. Mendelsund begins and ends his book with a discussion of blurriness that takes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lightouse as an example. In this novel, Lily Briscoe, a principal character, paints Mrs. Ramsay reading to her son, James. Woolf never tells us readers what the painting looks like, though she does at one point offer a hint; Mr. Bankes interrupts Lily to ask what she means to indicate by “the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’,” then  ponders how the “mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced…to a purple shadow” (Woolf’s words). Mendelsund admits that while reading this passage he can neither see the scene that Lily attempts to capture nor Lily herself. “The scene and its occupants are blurred,” he notes. Yet, oddly, “the painting seems more…vivid.” Why is this? We know the painting as a reductive purple shadow. And for Mendelsund, “Picturing stories is making reductions. Through reductions, we create meaning.”


To reduce and to blur is to invite the imagination. We are not more likely to see a character if the author details her appearance. Conversely we’re more likely to see a character if we’re offered only epitaphs and forced to imagine the rest. (In Homer, for example, all we know about the goddess Athena is that she’s “gray-eyed” and “white-armed”). In this way, picturing readings shares much in common with hearing music. Just as we paradoxically hear rests in music, we see what’s not shown in books. Which leads to a point that by now is likely obvious: the experience of reading is synesthetic. From a text arises pictures and music. It’s impossible when reading to separate our experience of sight from our experience of sound. “As any poet will tell you,” Mendelsund writes, “the rhythms, registers, and onomatopoeic sounds of words build a synthetic transfer in listeners and readers (silent listeners).” And it goes even further than this: the reading experience involves all five senses. Books have a taste, a smell, a colour, a texture. It’s difficult to talk intelligibly about the synesthetic experience of reading (though isn’t The Great Gatsby a novel that is undeniably perfumed, silken and gold?), and maybe that’s why Mendelsund limits his focus to what we see when we read. In any case, his book is a glowing step in an exhilarating direction.