What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund – Review


Title: What We See When We Read

Author: Peter Mendelsund

Publisher: Vintage

Published: August 5, 2014

Genre: Non-Fiction, Books about Books, Art, Psychology

Pages: 425

Acquired: Borrowed from the library

Links: Goodreads, Amazon, Book Depository

SUMMARY (from Goodreads)

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. A VINTAGE ORIGINAL.

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 thinks of 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.


This book is either

a) incredibly profound and I just didn’t get it


b) not really saying much and borderline worthless.

The author goes through a very long-winded study of how we visualize what we read. Does it depend on our past experiences? Does it depend on how the author builds descriptions? Does it depend on our mental abilities? Spoiler, the answer is yes. Of course it’s yes! How do we visualize a compound pulley if we’ve never seen one? Well, we use our past knowledge of other types of pulleys to fudge the image. Does a detailed description from the author change what we see? Yes, of course. The answers are such common sense that I’m almost baffled that he could draw them out into 425 pages.

I struggled with many aspects of this book, from the petty to the substantial. The book about 1/3 to 1/2 text and the remainder is graphics. Sometimes the graphics relate to what is being said, sometimes they don’t. The font is at least 14 point, which I find really difficult to read for extended periods of time. (I’m a habitual font-size-reducer on my Kindle.) The author references classical works that I’ve never read, so some of what he was saying went over my head. Even if I had read the works that he references, I fear I would come to the same conclusion — he really doesn’t say much.

There are certainly quotable moments —

Are characters complete as soon as they are introduced? Perhaps they are complete, but just out of order; the way a puzzle might be. (p. 49)

And —

Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock accumulated experience of the reader. Words “contain” meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning… (p. 302)

But these couldn’t make up for my feelings of being underwhelmed and so over it.

It’s like I was at a party, talking to an interesting bunch of strangers about a fascinating topic, when all of a sudden Peter Mendelsund butts in to give his 2 cents and just when I feel that he’s about to get off his soapbox, he just keeps talking.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the question of “what we see when we read” is all that important to me. I don’t care how the images come into my mind (through past experiences or character descriptions) or whether they’re full/accurate or a vague aura. The way that I’ve been reading for my entire life seems to be working pretty well… no need to overthink it.


a title here


One thought on “What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund – Review

  1. Pingback: November/#nonficnov Wrap Up | (bargain)bookbliss

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