Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

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.
It's hard to even start writing a review for this, mainly because I'm still struggling to pin down how I would classify the book as a whole.  It's about language, writing, psychology, perception, and literature.  It's got a little bit of everything.  As far as the skill in writing, I say superbly done.  It's both easy to read (large font, short paragraphs, lots of illustrations) and incredibly difficult (it addresses some of the most complex issues of perception, the brain, and literary device).  It's obvious that the author knows his business, backwards and forwards, and he translates that to the page in a way that the dedicated reader won't find overwhelming.

Entertainment Value
As I mentioned above, this is both an easy and hard read.  The illustrations are perfect and make the book compelling and fun to read (and see).  At the same time, there's a fair amount of both literary and psychological (perception-focused) speak, although nothing that should be too difficult for readers who don't mind stretching their minds a bit.  

A few bullet points from the book that I particularly enjoyed:
  • The more you try to focus on an exact image of a person in a book, the harder it is to find it.  The more you focus on the image of a person you know, the easier it is.
  • It's easier to "hear" a line of dialogue than it is to "see" a character
  • As we read, we make constant adjustments to what we "see" as more information is provided.  When we remember reading, we don't remember making these small adjustments, we remember it as if we were watching a movie all along
  • Reading as co-creation: the provision of an image by the author or a movie can be seen as stealing from the reader's imagination
I reviewed this in digital format, so I'm interested to get my hands on a finished copy and see if it's printed in grayscale, as the digital ARC, or if color is added for the finished product.  And I'll most definitely be getting my hands on a print copy.  As much as I enjoyed the experience in digital format, I think it's one that A) belongs in a prominent spot on my bookcase and B) could be even better in print format.  I highly recommend giving it a try.

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf for providing me with a copy to review!

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