A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader. 

What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page—a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so—and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved—or reviled—literary figures. In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf's Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature—he considers himself first and foremost as a reader—into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.

"A conversation piece, created to entice repeated thumb-throughs. . . . [The author is] a highly regarded book-jacket designer. . . . Reading is often considered (especially by those who don’t love to do it) a passive activity. But Cambridge native Mendelsund . . . makes a nice case that it is, in fact, a kind of active collaboration. . . . What We See When We Read, itself a work of conceptual design, unfolds the author’s ideas about what makes reading a creative, visual act all its own on pages—some packed with text, others just a line or two—that incorporate sketches, clip art, images of classic book covers and more.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Mendelsund, throughout this thought-provoking book, helps the lay reader contemplate text in ways you hadn’t thought about previously.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“The liveliest, most entertaining and best illustrated work of phenomenology you'll pick up this year. An acclaimed book-jacket designer and art director, Mendelsund investigates, through words and pictures, what we see when we read text and where those images come from. His breakdown of the reading and visualizing processes yields many insights. . . . Playfully, he offers us a police composite sketch of Anna, based on the description in Tolstoy's novel." —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
 
"A playful, illustrated treatise on how words give rise to mental images. . . . Mendelsund argues that reading is an act of co-creation, and that our impressions of characters and places owe as much to our own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors. . . . [What We See When We Read] explore[s] the peculiar challenges of transforming words into images, and blend[s] illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory." —Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
 
"[Mendelsund] produces a kaleidoscopic, immersive experience that successfully combines text, graphics, illustrations, cover images and more into a cohesive whole. It’s a book to be read, reread, shown to perspective graphic designers and shared."—Kirkus
 
"[A] sort of epistemological exercise that, at its best, calls all sorts of associations to mind. It summons a mental flood. . . . Mendelsund is an adept memoirist; the personal material in this book resonates. He notes that we can read novels quickly, as if driving through them, or slowly, as if walking, and have distinct experiences. . . . [He] keeps his tone light while thinking deliberately about fundamental things." —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
 
"A delightful treat for the avid reader. . . . [A] topsy-turvily illustrated marvel. . . . [Mendelsund] maps the dreamscape of reading to show us how the mirage dissolves under close scrutiny but its memory still burns brilliant. What a tangible magic books are!” —Shelf Awareness
 
“Mendelsund, one of the truly great book-cover designers, explores what we see when we read, in a volume packed with stunning visuals. It’s a fascinating and enlightening look at something we might not actually realize we’re thinking about with every word we read." —Flavorwire
 
"Quirky and fascinating. . . . Mendelsund draws our attention to things we may not be fully conscious of when we immerse ourselves in a narrative. . . . We See When We Read will make passionate readers think about things they may largely take for granted when absorbed in a book and spark further thoughts about what the pleasurable experience of reading is all about." —BookPage
 
"Intriguing. . . . A truly remarkable book." —Coolhunting.com
 
"In this brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art, Knopf associate art director and cover designer Mendelsund inquires about the complex process of reading. . . . The book exemplifies the idea that reading is not a linear process. Even if readers follow consecutive words, they incorporate into reading memories, distractions, predispositions, desires and expectations. . . . In 19 brief, zesty chapters, the author considers such topics as the relationship of reading to time, skill, visual acuity, fantasy, synesthesia and belief.... Mendelsund amply attains his goal to produce a quirky, fresh and altogether delightful meditation on the miraculous act of reading." —Kirkus (starred)

"Offhandedly brilliant, witty, and fluent in the works of Tolstoy, Melville, Joyce, and Woolf, Mendelsund guides us through an intricate and enlivening analysis of why literature and reading are essential to our understanding of ourselves, each
other, and the spinning world." —Booklist
 
"This examination of how words on a page become pictures in our brains is blowing my mind a little in the best possible way." —BookRiot

"Wow. . . . Mendelsund has changed the way I think about reading. Like the Wizard of Oz tornado, Mendelsund’s lucid, questing prose and his surprising, joyful visuals collide to create a similar weather system inside the reader. Not only are you carried off to Oz, but you’re aware at every moment of the cyclonic action of your reader’s mind and your reader’s imagination. It’s so smart, so totally original, so beautiful. This is the perfect gift for anyone who has ever blinked awake inside a book." —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

"This is not a book, this is a sacred text. It inspires, it expands the mind, it proves that Mendelsund is a total freaking genius." —Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers

"Amazing. . . . Sparkling with verbal as well as visual wit and the personable exhilaration of one of the best conversations you’ve ever had, What We See When We Read opens one’s eyes to that special brand of blindness which makes the vividness of fiction possible. It reads as if the ghost of Italo Calvino audited Vladimir Nabokov’s literature class and wrote his final paper with the help of Alvin Lustig and the Radiolab guys." —Chris Ware, author of Building Stories

"Brilliant. Peter Mendelsund has peered into our messy heads and produced an illuminating, kaleidoscopic meditation on reading. Also on seeing. And understanding." —Jim Gleick, bestselling author of The Information

"Peter Mendelsund is to the art of  book design what Walter Murch is to the art of  film-editing. That, of course, is the highest praise  imaginable." —Geoff Dyer, author of Another Great Day at Sea
“A proposition is a picture of reality. a proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.”
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


“I don't think I shall ever forget my first sight of Hercule Poirot. of course, i got used to him later on, but to begin with it was a shock... i don't know what i'd imagined ... of course, i knew he was a foreigner, but i hadn't expect- ed him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what i mean. When you saw him you just wanted to laugh! he was like something on the stage or at the pictures.”
—Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia


“Writing ... is but a different name for conversation. as no one, who knows what he is about in good compa- ny, would venture to talk all; so no author, who under- stands the just boundaries of decorum and good breed- ing, would presume to think all: the truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”
—Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman


“Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do, deceiving elf.”
—John Keats, Ode to a Nightengale


PICTURING
"PICTURING"


i could begin with Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe—“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered up face...”—is a principle character in Vir- ginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of mrs. Ramsey sitting by the window reading to her son James. lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property.

She is nervous about being interrupted, about some- one breaking her concentration whilst engaged in this delicate act. the idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable.

But kind, acceptable mr. Bankes wanders up, exam- ines her work, and asks “What did she mean to indi- cate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’?” it is meant to be mrs. Ramsey, reading to her son, though "no one could tell it for a human shape."

Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow...

Mother and child: reduced.

We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf's novel.) We are only told about it.

Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.)

***

This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. the painting is lily's depiction of the tableau in front of her—her reading of it.

i cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture.

i cannot see Lily herself.

The scene and its occupants are blurred.

Strangely, the painting seems more...vivid.

***

FICTIONS

What do we see when we read?

(Other than words on a page.)

What do we picture in our minds?

There is a story called "reading."

We all know this story.

It is a story of pictures, and of picturing

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

And this memory of reading is a false memory.


*William James describes the impossible attempt to introspectively examine our own consciousness as "trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks."
© Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund is a designer and writer. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters. View titles by Peter Mendelsund

About

A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader. 

What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page—a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so—and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved—or reviled—literary figures. In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf's Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature—he considers himself first and foremost as a reader—into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.

"A conversation piece, created to entice repeated thumb-throughs. . . . [The author is] a highly regarded book-jacket designer. . . . Reading is often considered (especially by those who don’t love to do it) a passive activity. But Cambridge native Mendelsund . . . makes a nice case that it is, in fact, a kind of active collaboration. . . . What We See When We Read, itself a work of conceptual design, unfolds the author’s ideas about what makes reading a creative, visual act all its own on pages—some packed with text, others just a line or two—that incorporate sketches, clip art, images of classic book covers and more.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Mendelsund, throughout this thought-provoking book, helps the lay reader contemplate text in ways you hadn’t thought about previously.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“The liveliest, most entertaining and best illustrated work of phenomenology you'll pick up this year. An acclaimed book-jacket designer and art director, Mendelsund investigates, through words and pictures, what we see when we read text and where those images come from. His breakdown of the reading and visualizing processes yields many insights. . . . Playfully, he offers us a police composite sketch of Anna, based on the description in Tolstoy's novel." —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
 
"A playful, illustrated treatise on how words give rise to mental images. . . . Mendelsund argues that reading is an act of co-creation, and that our impressions of characters and places owe as much to our own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors. . . . [What We See When We Read] explore[s] the peculiar challenges of transforming words into images, and blend[s] illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory." —Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
 
"[Mendelsund] produces a kaleidoscopic, immersive experience that successfully combines text, graphics, illustrations, cover images and more into a cohesive whole. It’s a book to be read, reread, shown to perspective graphic designers and shared."—Kirkus
 
"[A] sort of epistemological exercise that, at its best, calls all sorts of associations to mind. It summons a mental flood. . . . Mendelsund is an adept memoirist; the personal material in this book resonates. He notes that we can read novels quickly, as if driving through them, or slowly, as if walking, and have distinct experiences. . . . [He] keeps his tone light while thinking deliberately about fundamental things." —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
 
"A delightful treat for the avid reader. . . . [A] topsy-turvily illustrated marvel. . . . [Mendelsund] maps the dreamscape of reading to show us how the mirage dissolves under close scrutiny but its memory still burns brilliant. What a tangible magic books are!” —Shelf Awareness
 
“Mendelsund, one of the truly great book-cover designers, explores what we see when we read, in a volume packed with stunning visuals. It’s a fascinating and enlightening look at something we might not actually realize we’re thinking about with every word we read." —Flavorwire
 
"Quirky and fascinating. . . . Mendelsund draws our attention to things we may not be fully conscious of when we immerse ourselves in a narrative. . . . We See When We Read will make passionate readers think about things they may largely take for granted when absorbed in a book and spark further thoughts about what the pleasurable experience of reading is all about." —BookPage
 
"Intriguing. . . . A truly remarkable book." —Coolhunting.com
 
"In this brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art, Knopf associate art director and cover designer Mendelsund inquires about the complex process of reading. . . . The book exemplifies the idea that reading is not a linear process. Even if readers follow consecutive words, they incorporate into reading memories, distractions, predispositions, desires and expectations. . . . In 19 brief, zesty chapters, the author considers such topics as the relationship of reading to time, skill, visual acuity, fantasy, synesthesia and belief.... Mendelsund amply attains his goal to produce a quirky, fresh and altogether delightful meditation on the miraculous act of reading." —Kirkus (starred)

"Offhandedly brilliant, witty, and fluent in the works of Tolstoy, Melville, Joyce, and Woolf, Mendelsund guides us through an intricate and enlivening analysis of why literature and reading are essential to our understanding of ourselves, each
other, and the spinning world." —Booklist
 
"This examination of how words on a page become pictures in our brains is blowing my mind a little in the best possible way." —BookRiot

"Wow. . . . Mendelsund has changed the way I think about reading. Like the Wizard of Oz tornado, Mendelsund’s lucid, questing prose and his surprising, joyful visuals collide to create a similar weather system inside the reader. Not only are you carried off to Oz, but you’re aware at every moment of the cyclonic action of your reader’s mind and your reader’s imagination. It’s so smart, so totally original, so beautiful. This is the perfect gift for anyone who has ever blinked awake inside a book." —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

"This is not a book, this is a sacred text. It inspires, it expands the mind, it proves that Mendelsund is a total freaking genius." —Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers

"Amazing. . . . Sparkling with verbal as well as visual wit and the personable exhilaration of one of the best conversations you’ve ever had, What We See When We Read opens one’s eyes to that special brand of blindness which makes the vividness of fiction possible. It reads as if the ghost of Italo Calvino audited Vladimir Nabokov’s literature class and wrote his final paper with the help of Alvin Lustig and the Radiolab guys." —Chris Ware, author of Building Stories

"Brilliant. Peter Mendelsund has peered into our messy heads and produced an illuminating, kaleidoscopic meditation on reading. Also on seeing. And understanding." —Jim Gleick, bestselling author of The Information

"Peter Mendelsund is to the art of  book design what Walter Murch is to the art of  film-editing. That, of course, is the highest praise  imaginable." —Geoff Dyer, author of Another Great Day at Sea

Excerpt

“A proposition is a picture of reality. a proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.”
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


“I don't think I shall ever forget my first sight of Hercule Poirot. of course, i got used to him later on, but to begin with it was a shock... i don't know what i'd imagined ... of course, i knew he was a foreigner, but i hadn't expect- ed him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what i mean. When you saw him you just wanted to laugh! he was like something on the stage or at the pictures.”
—Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia


“Writing ... is but a different name for conversation. as no one, who knows what he is about in good compa- ny, would venture to talk all; so no author, who under- stands the just boundaries of decorum and good breed- ing, would presume to think all: the truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”
—Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman


“Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do, deceiving elf.”
—John Keats, Ode to a Nightengale


PICTURING
"PICTURING"


i could begin with Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe—“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered up face...”—is a principle character in Vir- ginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of mrs. Ramsey sitting by the window reading to her son James. lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property.

She is nervous about being interrupted, about some- one breaking her concentration whilst engaged in this delicate act. the idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable.

But kind, acceptable mr. Bankes wanders up, exam- ines her work, and asks “What did she mean to indi- cate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’?” it is meant to be mrs. Ramsey, reading to her son, though "no one could tell it for a human shape."

Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow...

Mother and child: reduced.

We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf's novel.) We are only told about it.

Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.)

***

This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. the painting is lily's depiction of the tableau in front of her—her reading of it.

i cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture.

i cannot see Lily herself.

The scene and its occupants are blurred.

Strangely, the painting seems more...vivid.

***

FICTIONS

What do we see when we read?

(Other than words on a page.)

What do we picture in our minds?

There is a story called "reading."

We all know this story.

It is a story of pictures, and of picturing

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

And this memory of reading is a false memory.


*William James describes the impossible attempt to introspectively examine our own consciousness as "trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks."

Author

© Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund is a designer and writer. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters. View titles by Peter Mendelsund

Books for Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Every May we celebrate the rich history and culture of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Browse a curated selection of fiction and nonfiction books by AANHPI creators that we think your students will love. Find our full collection of titles for Higher Education here.

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