On Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read”


Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology With Illustrations is a remarkable study of perception in the experience of reading. Just his book’s title suggests, Mendelsund explores what exactly it is that we “see” in our minds eye when we read. It’s an interesting question or set of questions really–What do we imagine when we read words on the page? Does each word trigger a micro-vision in out minds eye, or does the triggering happen in the spaces between words? “Is it that we imagine the most, or the most vividly, when an author is at his most elliptical or withholding? (In music, notes and chords define ideas, but so do rests)” (30). This book is full of probing insights and musings like these that stop you in your tracks and make you think.

Mendelsund makes a few references to music in his book, no surprise given that he’s a trained classical pianist. This background in music and his general analytical mind may explain how he views characters in novels “like a set of rules that determines a particular outcome” (34) and how “we hear more than we see while we are reading (39). Page by page, What We See When We Read methodically yet playfully investigates the reading experience through examples culled from the Greats–from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to Virginia Woolf to Joyce and Kafka. And each of these examples is graphically illustrated in a way that demonstrates the very concepts they embody. What do those and other authors actually tell us through their writing–as opposed to what we read and imagine through it? This engaging phenomenology by one the publishing industry’s leading graphic designers sets out to engage this territory.

Being musically oriented, I was most taken by Mendelsund’s discussions that offer insight on the musical experience. For example, when he talks of reading bringing one into “a liminal space”–a “polydimensionality” of being in many places at once (61)–I immediately thought, but of course, this is what listening to music is like too. Words are also like musical notes in that they each have contexts. In music, add a second note to a single tone and you generate the context of a chord by which to understand the two sounds together. And the element of time is key to both reading and music listening. Our perception in both depends on being able to time travel back and forward to help us make sense of the passing literary or sonic moment. “In order to make sense of a book’s words and phrases we must think ahead when we read–we must anticipate” (94)…At once, we read a sentence, read a few sentences ahead, keep track of what we’ve already read, and imagine events yet to come” (104). For Medelsund, reading “is not a sequence of experienced ‘now’s” (107)–it feels more flowing than that. And of course, that’s one of music’s supreme charms too: to make sequences of notes conjure a seamless and emotionally powerful virtual environment that makes ideal use of the passing of time.

So what do authors bring to our table? They orchestrate the experience and guide our imaginations: “The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much” (125). When the textual experience is calibrated just right, it feels so real because it’s as if all the details could be no other way. Or as Medelsund puts it, “My delight is my tribute to the author’s having paid close attention to the world” (136). But the reader is the other crucial part of how writing generates its meaning. In an illustration that depicts a conductor through whose transparent body we can see a concert audience, Mendelsund draws on the metaphor of performance to illustrate: “We perform a book–we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance….(As readers, we are both the conductor and the orchestra, as well as the audience)” (160). In other words, reading is an active process of meaning-making, obviously, but also an act of trust and of faith even: “When we read, it is important that we believe we are seeing everything” (162). There’s a lot at stake in the act of reading insofar as no matter what the subject, we get to inhabit the consciousness of another. “Books allow us certain freedoms–we are free to be mentally active when we read; we are full participants in the making (the imagining) of a narrative” (192).


By a certain point in Medelsund’s book, it becomes clear that he’s a believer in a view that novels aren’t really representational at all. In a passage that reminded me of the music of J.S. Bach, the author frames it thusly: “The 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” (245). In other words, when we read or listen to music, “we don’t see meaning” (265); rather, meaning is something created out of the work’s component parts. Here, Mendelsund gets increasingly abstract, wondering whether we can “picture the medium or dimension in which things reside? (281), and muses about the role of memory in our imagining: “Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory” (299). He also returns to musical examples, drawing on American composer Aaron Copland’s three levels of listening–the sensuous, the expressive, and the semantic/musical (310)–to think through how we read through what is essentially a “nebula of illusory material” (342).

In the end, we read and listen and manage to make sense out of the words or sounds before us through an act of synthesis. “It is the synthesis that we know. (It is all we know.)” Writers and composers and readers and listeners are all synthesizers. “Authors are curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can–out of disorder they create narrative” (402). Similarly, readers take what they can from the words, conjuring something the way eyesight merges two separate images into the illusion of one. “Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read” (415). In music too, something is said and that something is heard and interpreted by a listener. Hopefully–remarkably–meaning arises from this exchange. Mendelsund ends his delightful book with the same literary example he began with, pointing out that, as is so often the case, what is there–on the page, in the music–and what we perceive to be there are not the same thing. We think we see or hear something clearly, but it was always blurred.

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