What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund


This is a book for readers, plain and simple. In What We See When We Read, author Peter Mendelsund takes the reader on an exclusive journey toward understanding what happens in our minds when we read, and what we see when we read.

Using impressive graphic art and precise language Mendelsund explores both the literal and the abstract of great works of literature such as Anna Karenina, Moby Dick and Ulysses to conclude, among other things, that no two imaginations are alike, but both are shaped by the ways in which we read.

“The story of reading is a remembered story. When we read, we are immersed. And the more we are immersed, the less we are able, in the moment, to bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience in which we are absorbed. Thus, when we discuss the feeling of reading, we are really talking about the memory of having read.”

“Literary characters are physically ague – they have only a few features, and these features hardly seem to matter – or, rather, these features matter only in that they help to refine a character’s meaning. Character description is a kind of circumscription. A character’s features help to delineate their boundaries – but these features don’t help us to truly picture a person.”

As a character writer myself I was especially captivated by the question: are characters complete as soon as they are introduced?

“Does the way the character ‘looks’ to you (their appearance) change…as a result of their inner development? (A real person may become more beautiful to us once we are better acquainted with their nature – and in these cases our increased affection isn’t due to some closer physical observation…are characters complete as soon as they are introduced? Perhaps they are complete, but just out of order; the way a puzzle might be.”

So much more is explored in this book but I think the chapters on characters will strike a chord with most readers because it is easy to feel somewhat possessive of the literary character we love the most, and so to be told that “our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites” is a little arresting. But it’s true. If you think about it. We tend to know more of a character’s behavior, their actions, than their physical attributes.

As you read, as you pour over the images in this book, you may find yourself questioning the very act of reading, analyzing passages more closely than you have before, and with, just maybe, a new appreciation for the simple act of reading.

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