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Thoughts on What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

I love reading, and I love introspection, so What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund was a rewarding and intriguing read. Throughout the book, Mendelsund delves in to the question posed in the title – what do we see when we read? What do we think we see when we read?  What do we remember when we think back over what we saw when we read?

What do you see when you read? For me, it often depends on what I’m reading. With nonfiction, I often see only the words on the page, and I read slower – reflecting on those words as I read. With fiction, I often am ‘seeing’, or rather, imagining, the story in my head as I read along. As Mendelsund points out, again and again in different ways, is that the story I think I am seeing in my head is not at all clear. I have no set image of how a character looks; I am more just imagining what is happening, very vaguely and as if seen as small snippets of items or actions. I’m able to immerse myself less in the story, with nonfiction, and analyze and think critically more than I can with fiction (on page 9 Mendelsund talks about immersion in reading and how that makes it difficult to analyze as we read).

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

I think also that how I ‘see’ (or rather, don’t see) nonfiction translates in part to why I enjoy reading it so much (page 322 vs page 212 – and what does that say about me, does it say that I’m missing some quality of the imagination?). It allows me a break from imagining images or characters in my head and allows me to focus on the words and on their meanings in a way that fiction doesn’t. Because of this, I’ve always considered nonfiction to be more of an ‘escape’ than fiction, because when reading fiction I’m bringing up the past to fit memories into cues (as Mendelsund says, when a book references a river, our visual of that river is made up of one or many rivers we’ve seen in the past). As with seeing the world – we blur, we rely on stereotypes and memories to reduce what we see to meaningful stories and future memories – the same is done while reading. Nonfiction, for me, is often a way to avoid that.

(And a note on above, although Mendelsund does make reference to how our memories and stereotypes of ‘types’ help us to ‘see’ when we read, I would have loved to see more of a discussion about how stereotypes continue to prejudice us and how they affect our reading. (Especially given the rather racist quote on page 373.))

I remember, at some point in the past, being startled to realize that most people have clear memories and pictures in their heads of people who they know. Often when I picture friends or family, I see a vague picture that is colored more by who they are and how they act than by specific features such as hair color, height, eye color, and so on. I found it interesting to have it pointed out that this is also how we ‘see’ characters in our reading.

Among the great mysteries of life is this fact: The world presents itself to us, and we take in the world. We don’t see the seams, the cracks, and the imperfections. (page 405)

A few other thoughts:

The way the book was illustrated really forced me to read more slowly, and pay attention to how the text and the images built upon each other. For a book about how we ‘see’ our reading, the images gave more context and feel to the words. However, for a book so concerned with ‘seeing’, it is worth mentioning, I think, that the way the book was written makes it less accessible to those who have vision problems: the way the text in some instances crosses the fold, making it hard to read; the white text on a black background on some pages, which is more difficult to read than black text on white; the many, many images that would be difficult or impossible to translate into a reading software for those who are blind; and the varying fonts and sizes of the text which would also be difficult to translate to audio. In that way, the book is leaving out a large audience.

As well, the book references other books and authors very frequently, as would be expected in a book about the act of reading. As with many of these types of books, those referenced are from the standard canon (read: white, male, old, with few exceptions). It is understandable, the need to use reference points which are understood by many, in these situations. But it also makes me think about how this [white, male, old (wmo)] canon reinforces itself and maintains itself through these types of works. A [wmo] canon was created, and we can attack it and request its expansion, but until such a time as it is expanded and we have common references outside of it, books such as this (especially when written by wm authors) will continue to reinforce the existing canon. So which comes first: An expanded canon? Or should we still expect books like this to reference a more diverse selection of books without knowing for sure how many have read them? (For example, instead of yet another work about Tolstoy’s Anna, what about a work which uses Achebe’s Okonkwo. Surely by now we can expect most people to understand that reference as well?)

All in all, a very interesting read that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the process of reading.

(A final note: I got this book through the Book Riot Quarterly box which I enjoyed though with international shipping found slightly overpriced. I did really enjoy this book, though, so I may get the next one still before deciding to cancel or not.)