What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

WWSWWR MendelsundWhat We See When We Read By Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, 2014)

This quirky book – there are as many pictures as words, it seems – is the product of one of New York’s top book cover designers. You can plow through it in a couple of hours, at least until you came across an idea or section and go “Whoa! I never thought of the reading process that way.” Then you stop and really think about the ideas the author is presenting for consideration. For example, he writes on p.9 that when we read, we can be submerged (at least in good books) so deeply in the text that we are unable to “bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience.” It’s like trying to bring up the light fast enough to see the darkness (a phrase he borrows from William James). We really are remembering the act of reading, he says, so this memory is a “false memory.” (I think this is a good thing: otherwise, if the experience of reading a book were burned into our memories for all time, how could we ever enjoy reading a book all over again? And how could it be better or worse the second time around?)

The book startles when it shows us how much we as readers bring to a book. He mentions Flaubert (famously, as he says) changing the eye color of Madame Bovary (page 46): “blue, brown, deep black…” but apparently not subtracting from the character at all. We all clothe characters if not provided with their dress, give them ears big or small, and provide them with a stature fitting their role (the small, furtive, thief; the tall, dashing hero…). We imagine the whole usually, but do not see the parts: how many buttons on the pirate’s shirt? Is his sword curved? We have to “look” inward to find out.

As someone struggling through a novel-writing program right now, Mendelsund has a good point about how “All books open in doubt and dislocation” (page 60). You have to orient the reader immediately. You can transport the reader to a far-off place, as in a fantasy, or open with a sly wink at the reader’s willingness to render the reading process present, but invisible. For the latter, Mendelsund quotes the opening of Nebula Award winner Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler with great approval: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” The cloud in this case covers much of page 63. (In the epilogue to Moby-Dick, Mendelsund reminds us on p. 290, Ishmael tells us he is “…floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it…”, and this ever-present margin is much like the dividers of panels in a graphic novel or comic strip, he says.)

Speaking of fantasy, which I imagine I write, on page 235 the author mentions books like Lord of the Rings in which reading involves immersion into a world very different that our own. These books, he says, demand scholarship. The well-done worlds seem “endless” and convey the feeling that the reader can wander off and have their own adventures without the author’s help at all (hello, fan fiction!). A map, he says, is a sure-fire tip that we are entering a book that is really a “compendium-of-knowledge” as well as a story. Readers expect a given level of richness, and the author must provide it.

These are kind of gems you will find in the pages of Mendelsund’s book. The collected points form a scaffold for the book, not like a bridge from one shore to another, but to build upwards into our minds as we read. It’s light, breezy, not pedantic, and all the more effective that way.

Some of the ground he covers will be familiar to those who have studied literature before. Character descriptions are not like wanted posters (and gosh, they shouldn’t be), so readers are free to imagine Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina (his two favorites for this activity) almost any way they want, including eye color. He offers a pictorial array of Madam Bovarys on p. 259. Which is the “real” one? When we read, he claims, images are plucked from our experiences. Mendelsund’s Stalingrad of WW II is mapped onto Lower Manhattan (pages 212-213). And how many people have substituted the Classics Illustrated versions of Captain Ahab and Ishmael (conveniently reproduced on pages 288-289) for Melville’s descriptions of the same?  I have to admit, try as I might to alter the image, the Pequod always resembles the famous war frigate USS Constitution, which I toured in Boston harbor. (He raises much the same point again on page 330.)

This book defies attempts to provide a linear summary. As the eye saccades around the page, gulping in groups of words because the eye cannot focus on text while it is in motion, the book jumps from sections like “Openings” to “Time” and “Vividness.” It ends with “It Is Blurred,” an admission that our world through the fragmented experience of reading words is necessarily incomplete and highly individualistic. Does your lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse have windows spiraling up the structure? How high is railing at the top?

I was surprised in the section called “Sketching” to find out how many authors were also visual artists, producing drawings of the characters in their books. These include Poe (portraits), Hesse, the Bronte sisters, Kafka (he insisted that the creature in the “Metamorphosis” could not be illustrated as a real cockroach), and more. On page 177, he has a great story in a footnote about James Joyce giving Matisse permission to illustrate Ulysses. But Matisse apparently never bothered to read the text, because he illustrated Homer’s version instead. I hope this visual skill is not a prerequisite for good writing, because I could never match the pictures that Kipling, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner drew…wait a minute! I’m never going to match their writing either, so why am I worried? J

All in all, the main point is how the act or reading is an act of reader participation in the narrative. We add details, supply continuity when there is none (if the character eats dinner in a restaurant and leaves, we assume that they paid for the meal – and left a tip! – although this is not stated), and so on.

I told you one of things I wanted to do here was connect the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, with other books. It’s a bit hard to do in the first post, but here’s how I connect this book with other stuff I think about:

There is another reason I found this book particularly fascinating. I did an ABD (All But Dissertation) PhD program in AI (Artificial Intelligence) at New York Polytechnic (the merger of NYU School of Engineering, where I started as an undergraduate, and Brooklyn Poly). So I am always interested in how human minds process “information.” I’ll talk more about AI and consciousness in other posts, because I read a lot about science and technology. It’s one thing for a machine to read and assimilate text. But when you ask an AI entity to tell you about a book it has read, I’ll be impressed when the AI doesn’t just split back words and phrases from the review or blurb or text itself, like the Rogerian therapist in the early Eliza program (more on all this later).

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