The Phenomenal Blur
Mendelsund's What We See When We Read
What We See When We Read
By Peter Mendelsund
Review by Alan Limnis
My frustration surrounding the “movies of the mind” trope makes me an enthusiastic reader of Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read. Mendelsund has made his career as a cover designer (currently associate art director at Knopf), which is not exactly the background one would expect for the writer of a book exploring the linguistic and cognitive processes we engage in after we’ve turned the cover aside. What We See When We Read is not hard science, though, nor is it the text of an author delving into and then explaining science for us, as many popular nonfiction authors do. Mendelsund’s approach is to adopt a simple, direct observational tone, not far removed from something like the voice John Berger uses in Ways of Seeing. As in that book, the vast majority of Mendelsund’s spreads feature images along with the text, though Mendelsund’s images aren’t presented as evidence—he is not making an art history argument. One imagines Mendelsund, as a visual artist, may have felt most comfortable producing a text in counterpoint with illustrations.
His investigation into what we do when we read is compelling, and Mendelsund points to canonical masterpieces as examples. A favorite of his is Anna Karenina, which he perhaps returns to a bit too often, considering how many varied and worthy novels might have served as evidence just as well. Tolstoy is no slouch, though, so this hardly a complaint, and Mendelsund is good at looking closely at the prose. When he writes that skilled authors don’t describe their characters in an anatomically comprehensive fashion, but that, as he puts it, “Characters are ciphers, and narratives are made richer by omission,” this is not a banal pronouncement from an Internet list on how to write well or a thesis statement leading to a thousand-word explication. It is instead the logical extension of a number of pages spent investigating the curious lack of definitive images that appear in fiction, the refusal, on the part of skilled writers, to make anything resembling a “movie of the mind.”
One of the book’s other strengths is Mendelsund’s admirable maintenance of focus and attack across his nineteen chapters. One senses Mendelsund’s investigations could easily move in the direction of a book on “how to write well,” but he sticks to the topic of his title and leaves other implications to the reader. His observations are at once commonsensical—that readers anticipate the end of sentences, for instance—but Mendelsund teases out and complicates the mystery of what these observations suggest. We do not merely anticipate the end of sentences, for instance, but also maintain information from previous sentences, anticipate information we believe will be related soon, and scan other parts of the page—all while we believe we are currently “reading” just one particular sentence. As Mendelsund puts it, “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.)” This process is so fundamentally not visual that it’s hard to say just what it is. A word like cognitive seems too clinical, mental too vague.
“If we don’t have pictures in our minds when we read, then it is the interaction of ideas—the intermingling of abstract relationships—that catalyzes feeling in us readers,” Mendelsund writes. “This sounds like a fairly unenjoyable experience, but, in truth, this is also what happens when we listen to music. This relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found.” Mendelsund’s jacket bio includes the information that he is also a “recovering classical pianist,” and he is quick to understand the implications of this connection between reading and music. “Nonrepresentational” strikes me as key. Whereas a film of Moby-Dick shows us an image and we are to understand that the image is the person named “Ishmael,” Mendelsund shows how Melville not only doesn’t really tell us what Ishmael looks like, but that the complicated way in which we read Moby-Dick through the consciousness of Ishmael suggests that Ishmael, in the book, doesn’t necessarily have to be a representational “person” as much as he must operate as a concept of consciousness around which are constellated other ideas, some of them concrete—whales, peg-legs, etc.—and others abstract—revenge and desire, for instance.
What our mind does with a written text is similar to what it does with the world itself: it seizes on particular details and ignores others, filtering the world and constructing a version of it acceptable to our consciousness, because the constructed understanding of the world is in some way intelligible. What we see when we read, Mendelsund says, is “blurred,” an amalgamation of significations, relationships, and feelings we bring to a book through our “performance” of it.
The title page of What We See When We Read states that it is “A Phenomenology.” Mendelsund does not attempt to solve or definitively dissect the phenomenon of what we do when we read, but instead to make us aware of just how mysterious the whole thing is. There is a richness to this, a way in which this book, in a culture drowning in moving images—in theaters, on the television, on the Internet, in our palms—reminds us of the power, almost paranormal, of what we are doing when we read a book. Reading is not movies of the mind. It is the escape into something our minds can do that is far more powerful than that.
Alan Limnis is a staff writer. Last fall he wrote about Ted Kooser’s The Wheeling Year.