What do we see when we read? Designer Peter Mendelsund, who's behind a few iconic covers you might've seen on bookshelves, poses the question in his new book, and, fittingly, answers it in an aesthetically pleasing way, alternating text-only pages with visualizations of his argument. Although we imagine the experience of reading as similar to watching a film, the goings-on in our brains are entirely more nebulous when we sit down with a book than when we sit back to watch a movie.
He begins by describing Lily Briscoe, a principle character in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, who is painting the scene that Woolf's book describes with words. We as readers are asked to visually perceive both Woolf's words and Briscoe's painting -- two related, but separate images.
What Mendelsund explicitly does is describe, with words and images, what we picture with our minds while reading words on a page. What he does more indirectly is defend the unique magic of reading, an art form that enlivens our ability to perceive creatively.
Studies show that reading is an especially effective means of stimulating the imagination, but Mendelsund isn't too concerned with studies. Instead, his book reads like a personal essay, with anecdotes about his and his friends' reading experiences.
Mendelsund recalls the first time he read Anna Karenina, and discovers that he doesn't posses a complete memory of her appearance. Although he's aware of her hair color, her attractiveness and her "thick lashes," he notes that "our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites." The mind, then, must fill in the gaps.
In a passage all readers are likely to relate to, Mendelsund questions whether the speed at which we read influences our imagination. He portrays one type of novel -- the type we're prone to breezing through -- as a pixilated road, like a Super Nintendo driving game. The other type, he suggests, is akin to a detailed impressionistic painting.
Below is an excerpt from Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read: