Peter Mendelsund: What we see when we read

My flatmate, (a high school English teacher with a weakness (?) for purchasing strange books from a range of genres), being a sometimes captive audience to my madness research, has become adept at recommending me interesting texts.  The latest one was Peter Mendelsund’s What we see when we read (2014).

Mendelsund is a designer and a writer, and the book is as much a visual text as it is a text text.  Which is refreshingly easy on the brain (although that might be the Masters hangover talking) despite some of the ideas being quite conceptual. Perhaps it feels that way because there is more of a left brain / right brain sharing of the load?

What is brilliant about the book is that it so easily and eloquently points out what should be the bleeding obvious (but isn’t) so that I found myself racing through it thinking, “yes, yes, yes” and feeling like I completely understood in a series of those “light bulb” moments, helped along by his images (oh hello pictures, I’ve missed you so).

Mendelsund exposes the completely different way we “see” when we read, which allows us to imagine characters or scenes without having to pin them down to exacting detail.  He points out how personalised the reading experience is, and the way in which an author will describe a character or scene in a way that is suggestive, allowing the reader to be party to the creation of the experience:

Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words “contain” meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning…

(Mendelsund, 2014, p.302).

In her book Faraway nearby (2013) Rebecca Solnit expresses a similar thought on text as potential:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another.

(Solnit, 2013, p. 63).

The experience of writing then is to create art that is finished by the reader.  Writing isn’t meant to replicate reality, it can’t replicate reality can it? Because text is always dependent on what the reader does with it in the realms of their own thoughts and imagination. Mendelsund even suggests that perhaps in mimicking the real world, literature draws attention to its inauthenticity (2014, p. 356).  There are some really lovely passages in this book, that I could have gone a bit quote-crazy over (but I managed to resist! Hurrah. Go read the book and find your own quotes) and the accompanying imagery for the most part strikes a good balance of being suggestive without being too illustrative.

What we see when we read made me think about how words can deliver meaning without dictating it, and made me consider the way in which we weave meaning out of the slightest of cues.  Not just when reading, but in how we view art, and how we construct identity (of ourselves and others) through the stories we tell.


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