A Book To Make You Think About Books

I finished book #12 of the year. I know it seems like I finished two books in one day, but I actually finished Beloved last night and wrote about it this morning when I, for whatever reason, woke up at 5 am ready for the day, so I got a head start on the book I just finished (that was a lot of useless detail, sorry) which was called What We See When We Read, written by Peter Mendelsund, who is the Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf publishers. (Holy run-on sentence.) (Everyone should check out his book cover art, it’s beautiful.)

I will preface this post by saying that I’m still processing this book myself, and I don’t even know that I will be able to adequately discuss it yet. I will say that I highly recommend reading it. It’s fantastic, unique, different, almost uncategorize-able (not a word, but you understand), and it made me think about the actual act of reading more than I ever had before. And I think about reading a lot. Like, a lot. This book changed it for me, not for the worse by any means, just adjusted the light I saw it [reading] in. Or something.

So I’ll start with what I can explain. As the title of this book alludes, Mendelsund discusses what the reader sees when they read. The whole experience of reading this book was so meta, because you’re reading about someone who is discussing what you’re imagining when you’re reading, and he’s quoting other authors’ passages who have discussed what they imagine when they read, and how much detail an author should provide for their readers to imagine while they read… it makes my head hurt if I get too deep into it.

Anyway, he covers all the bases as far as this investigation into what-readers-see-when-they-read goes. From the significance of physical descriptions of characters vs. their actions, to settings, to the effect that the narration has on how we read it, he discusses it all. I think some of it (maybe a lot) was lost on me because he gets deeply philosophical about all of it. He even delves into the senses, like whether it’s possible to conjure up a smell from memory (it’s not. He says as much, and I tried it so I believe him. Try to imagine the smell of an onion… it doesn’t work.)

Two really interesting things he touched on in this book about reading: the first was that while we read, we constantly have to adjust whatever we’re seeing or imagining as we take in more and more information provided as the story moves along. But then later, reflecting on the story, or the act of reading that story, we don’t remember those adjustments along the way, we just remember the complete picture that we’ve formed in our mind after the fact. That was revelatory to me, even though it seemed like the most obvious truth as I read it. Either way, I can definitely see it changing the way I read.

Another thing he discusses that was interesting to me: imagination. Is it a testament to the author’s artful use of language and detail when an image stands out or becomes universally accepted, or is it a testament to the reader’s imagination? Can one person’s imagination be stronger, more imaginative than someone else’s? There never really was a definitive answer to this question, but it’s really interesting to think about. Do some people like a certain writer or genre, because that is more conducive to their imagination? Do we all have an innate and equal capacity for imagination, and it’s just a matter of using it or not using it? Ah. I don’t know. Crazy to think about though, right?

Last thing about this book: it’s a little over 400 pages in total, but the text by itself would probably only add up to 100 pages, if that. The book is filled with beautiful illustrations, pictures, engrossing graphs and maps. Even the way that the text fills each page is strategic and beautiful. I was going to try and take a picture of a page as an example, but then I realized part of the fun of reading this book was the act of turning each page to see what the next one held.

So instead, you should go buy this book, or at the very least flip through it at a book store. I know I didn’t do it justice, but it’s beautiful and rewarding both to look at and even more to read. Also, unfair that someone can be so good at so many book-related things. This guy shouldn’t be allowed to be such a great designer, writer, and thinker. ◊

If we don’t have pictures in our minds when we read, then it is the interaction of ideas – the intermingling of abstract relationships – that catalyzes feeling in us readers… This relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things, but in the play of elements.”

– Mendelsund, 245

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