What We See When We Read

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What We See When We ReadWhat We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
Published: 2014
Length: 425 pages

Peter Mendelsund is a book cover designer, so I imagine he’s someone who’s spent a lot of time considering how to visualize what we see in our mind’s eye while reading a novel. I’ve been a fairly avid reader my entire life, but I never really stopped to consider what I’m actually picturing as I read and how that might differ from what others are seeing.

I was really enjoying this at first. It’s a fascinating concept and the book is formatted in a really fun way, with diagrams and illustrations that make it feel like an art project. This was my problem as I read further, though – it reads more like an art project than a book, and as such feels a bit stretched for substance. There were a few ideas that he introduced at the beginning and then went over them again and again in different ways. Each iteration was meant to delve and little deeper into the concept, but I found myself thinking ‘okay, I’ve got it already’ quite a few times.

When we see plays performed on the stage, we work with a different set of standards. Hamlet is ours to picture as we’d like, as he might be played by a different actor in every new production produced. We do not refer to Hamlet as a character as much as a ROLE. He is clearly meant to be inhabited: played. And Denmark is a SET. It can be anywhere the director and stage designer imagine it to be.

(Perhaps these terms –ROLE and SET– should be used when describing novels?)

An author gives an outline of a character and the reader fills in the rest, so no two readers have the same picture in their head. While I disagree with him that Hamlet is never referred to as a character, I love the idea of thinking of characters in novels as roles we play. We know reading is highly subjective, but this example really highlights the idea that reading is a meeting of two minds. This is why sometimes you find yourself loving a novel you know is mediocre or hating a novel that is celebrated by others. It’s the same way an actor’s performance can, in rare cases, still save a film from a poorly written script.

Authors provide a few key descriptions of a character or setting and then leave our imaginations and past experiences to fill in the rest of the picture, and we’re better off for it. In the same way a horror movie is always scarier when the monster isn’t explicitly shown on the screen, just a shadow here and a quick movement there, our minds can come up with an overall scene that is perfect for us alone.

I would have liked more science included in this, to have some interesting studies cited would have been fantastic, but this book was really just his personal musings on the subject. Despite this, and the repetition, I did really enjoy the book. It’s a quick read, more of a big illustrated essay than a book, and definitely worth checking out. I do wish, in a way, that Mary Roach had written it though.

4 thoughts on “What We See When We Read

  1. Geoff W

    I had a similar issue with Jane Austen Cover to Cover where it had such great potential and then was just lacking in any depth. I feel like I’ve heard about this book, or another one similar to it in the past year and it had good reviews.

    1. Rob Post author

      This one has great reviews, which makes me think I maybe wasn’t quite in the mood for it. I found the topic really interesting and just wanted more than it was offering, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  2. james b chester

    In graduate school this was called “Reader’s Response Theory.” It’s the idea that the reader is as important, maybe more important, than the author and that the two work together through the text to create a work of art. I like this idea of character/role, though I’m not sure I agree with it. I also like the idea that this book is really an art project, though I’m not sure how it would fill a book either.

    1. Rob Post author

      I started listening to audiobooks a few years back and listen to them regularly now, and I think that’s part of why that idea stood out to me so much. Hearing how a narrator can bring to life a character, particularly when accents are involved, has made me consider the idea of ‘playing the role’ before.

      I’m not entirely sure I agree with it either, at least not to the extent he’s saying, but it’s certainly an interesting way to look at it.


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