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What We See When We Read

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  4,558 ratings  ·  797 reviews
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
...more
Paperback, 425 pages
Published August 5th 2014 by Vintage (first published August 2014)
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Leslie I don't think I have that "condition," but for the most part I do not "see" a book unfold as if I were watching a movie. I have been told that oh, tha…moreI don't think I have that "condition," but for the most part I do not "see" a book unfold as if I were watching a movie. I have been told that oh, that doesn't even really qualify as reading at all, which as someone who reads over 100 books a year and gets totally engrossed in them, I find very offensive. It's a different way of processing things, not a defect.(less)

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Average rating 3.69  · 
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Amalia Gkavea
My mother has a most unusual reading habit. She is an avid reader and is able to finish a 500 page book in a day. This is not the strange thing here. What is beyond surprising is the fact that she doesn't form ''pictures'' in her head as she reads. She reads the words but doesn't feel the need to ''play out'' the action using her imagination. Also, she claims that writing essays was her weakest part at school. Her function of imagining things has always been below average. No wonder she is the m ...more
BlackOxford
The Heavenly Conspiracy

Here’s the truth that few want to recognise: Most of what we read (or for that matter hear) is made up, not by the writer but by ourselves. Forget about what words on the page refer to. Mendelsund is not interested in the classical problem of epistemology. We add immense amounts of descriptive and contextual material to what’s on the page without being aware of our doing so. According to Peter Mendelsund, “... the idea of a mirror is an analogy for the act of reading.” Wha
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s.penkevich
We perform a book, and we attend the performance.

Words have a unique power to impose pictures into the inward eye of the mind¹ In a recent thread, a friend commented on how Homer, despite his supposed blindness, had the ability to create metaphors which were more visual and imaginatively stunning that modern CGI has been able to manage. Words have a power that even visual stimulation cannot capture. It is interesting to consider the cliche that ‘the book is better than the movie’ which—in most
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☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
Or, rather what we see when there isn't much to read in a book we're trying to read. Quite a paradoxy.

Illustrations, illustrations, some random words splattered across it all, more illustrations. Whoa?

DNF-ing this pic book. Bye-bye.
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Maxwell
Jul 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
What an utterly absorbing and fascinating read. Mendelsund, a renowned cover designer, looks into exactly what the title suggest, what we see (or think we see) when we read. He dissects everything from first lines and impressions to the performative nature of reading; the reader as a part of the text to how memory implants itself on the mind's eye while reading. It's packed with illustrations and provides an excellent starting point to further examine what we are doing exactly when we read words ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I somehow forgot to review this one despite reading it in preparation for my Reading May Experience course, and using some of the quotations and bits from it in reflection prompts.

This is a visual study on what we know about reading. This is a book I'd like to own and dip in and out of from time to time, a real pleasure. Most people who read will get something out of it.
“The openings of To the Lighthouse and Moby-Dick are confusing for the reader – we haven’t yet been given sufficient informati
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Stephen P
Aug 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
I must begin this review by stating my prejudice of supreme enjoyment when reading about reading. I find this enterprise endlessly fascinating. The more I examine it the more there seems to examine.

Along with the purity of sheer enjoyment there was nothing which shattered my world, nor though was it a dry review of what I already knew. By including drawings, pieces of conceptual art-he is best known for designing book covers for well known works-he conjured from his imagination pictorials which
...more
JimZ
Nov 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was an enjoyable read. A very unique book by an author who has a very unique job: being associate art director for the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. It is ~419 pages long on the behavior or the process of reading. Thought-provoking. One thought that flitted across my mind about halfway through the book is how on earth all of us as humans are able to look at marks on a page, a whole page full of marks, and read them. Decode those marks into words. And yet if I were to open up a book in t ...more
Chris
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book fascinated me and intrigued me -- and it will change the way I write. The images -- and the interpretation of the images -- taught me so much. Absolutely terrific and clever and, yes, a lot of fun.
David
Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read” might almost be useful to those just coming to the idea of immersive, experiential reading, analytical reading, especially non-fiction, does not figure into this work, but for those who’ve been following, or studying, the phenomenon of non-critical reading this will be a tedious read.

The graphics are excellent, but they are disguising the fact you are reading a very, very short book—only 21k. The problem with this is that what you are getting is les
...more
Jafar
Aug 05, 2014 rated it it was ok
I started off liking this book. I thought Mendelsund was on to something interesting and original. But the more I read, the more I felt I was reading something by a postmodernist writer. You know the type. They sound high and mighty, but in the end it's impossible to tell what their point is, assuming they have a point.

Mendelsund makes a great deal of how we imagine the characters of a novel look like. Well, I, for one, make no attempt to imagine how Anna Karenina looks like when I read the nov
...more
Sophie (The Uneducated Reader)
Aug 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-ficiton
In some places I was all like WOAH NO WAY and other places I was all like YEAH NO SHIT and other places I was all like LOL and other places I was all like PICTURES. 4 stars.
Kimberly
Sep 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
Parts were really thought-provoking, but my quibble with this book is simply that I don't read the way the author reads. If there is a chair in the corner that the author doesn't describe, I don't wonder what color or style the chair is. If a scene takes place in a city I've never seen and the city isn't described, I don't graft Philadelphia on top of it. So the "WE see ..." and "WE feel..." statements don't ring true for me, and that colored my impression of the book. Maybe the title should hav ...more
Michael
When reading Moby Dick, does Ishmael look like Richard Basehart? How about Anna Karenina? Please don’t tell me she looked like Keira Knightley. What We See When We Read takes a look at the activity of reading with such depth and insight. Looking at not only the way our brain fills in the images but also what the author is trying to say. Take for example Karenin in Anna Karenina; his ears are described a few times within the novel but they get bigger. The size of his ears is an artistic simulacru ...more
Biblio Curious
May 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is the pinnacle of 'show don't tell.' It's written & illustrated by a highly regarded book cover designer. 2 of his designs that I'm fascinated by are The Kafka Covers, you know which ones. They have the creepy eyes on them. And the James Joyce books, the minimalist covers with the corrections as part of the design.

Mendelsund designed a book that shows us what we see, when we read. It's so literal the pages of Dickens' opening lines for Bleak House drift into London's Fog. We can easil
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Libby
Feb 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Peter Mendelsund is the author of this delightful little book, ‘What We See When We Read.’ He has designed many book covers and he’s an avid reader. He delves into the mysteries of how our imaginations create the world of the book we are reading. I’ve mostly thought of a book as a movie unwinding before me visually but of course it’s so much more than that. Because in the movie we don’t often have access to the characters thoughts like we do in books. And of course most movies last only a couple ...more
lark benobi
A whimsical graphic journey that invites us to ask ourselves: Just what is going on in our heads when we read fiction? Do we really SEE Anna Karenina? Why does it seem boring and unnecessary when writers try to write detailed descriptions of their characters—hair, eyes, skin, bearing—and why do singular markers, like slender hands, or a certain way of holding the chin, work better? How do books with illustrations change how we see the characters? What do we give up when we let an actor in a movi ...more
jeremy
Aug 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
once a reading of a book is under way, and we sink into the experience, a performance of a sort begins...

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)
jacket designer (and knopf associate art director) peter mendelsund has produced some of the most iconic cover art of recent years (a quick google image search is revealing). what we see when we read is an ex
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Francesca Marciano
Aug 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Peter Mendelsund is one of the best jacket designer (and knopf associate art director) out there. What we see when we read has to be one of the smartest books ever written (and designed) about reading and imagining....I absolutely loved it.
Cheryl
Sep 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
Patronizing/ insulting. Almost nothing objective, much less scientific. Lots of material collected from others, for example Nabokov on Dickens... did we really need Mendelsund's take layered on top of that? So much of this stuff, like mapping the course of the characters' fortunes, is taught to schoolchildren.

Most of the rest is self-indulgent sophomoric philosophizing. The kind of stuff done in the common room of the dormitory in the middle of the night, when participants are high on stress, fr
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Holly Dunn
Nov 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book was incredible and a must-read for any bibliophile. It explores what we picture when we read novels, in particular focusing on characters. Mendelsund is a graphic designer who specialises in book covers, so the design of this book is superlative. Filled with maps, drawings and diagrams, each page is a pleasure and a surprise. I devoured this book. It made me think really deeply about what I visualise when I’m reading. My only complaint was that it wasn’t longer and therefore didn't go ...more
Heather Dawn Stowell
Jan 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lit-crit
After my university course, I took in the year 2000, "An Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism," my love of reading was completely destroyed by overanalysis and the formal application of the process of literary deconstruction that permeated and depleted my entire belief system. My worldview became incredibly jaded and it could not have been more bitter. I simply could no longer read fiction, and I could not believe in anything else either as my willing suspension of disbelief was much, m ...more
Eleanore
Aug 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This was fantastic and I tore through it. It's designed to be read quickly, though, but that doesn't hinder it. The only thing keeping this from a 5 star rating is I feel there could've been even more material explored; it really only scratches the surface. It's not a shallow examination of this concept, though, and what it covers, it covers very well. This one passage in particular grabbed me and demanded rereading:

"River, the word, contains within it all rivers, which flow like tributaries in
...more
Elizabeth A
May 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Elizabeth by: Bookrageous
Shelves: 2015, non-fiction
Book blurb: A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading - how we visualize images from reading works of literature. What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like?

This book clocks in at 425 pages, but don't let that scare you away, and is a must read for anyone who loves to read. It explores what happens in our brains when we read novels, especially as it relates
...more
Mary Ronan Drew
Sep 04, 2014 rated it it was ok
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund should have been a delightful and insightful book. It wasn't; not for me. It's unusual, with many pages black with white print, clever (and not so clever) illustrations. Bits of text from novels shown in ways that purportedly illustrate how we see them. None of this worked for me. Next time you're in the library or a bookstore take a look at it. I'm sure it would appeal to somebody; maybe that's you.

I read a library copy. This is not a book for th
...more
Cathy
Sep 05, 2014 rated it it was ok
It's really beautifully illustrated, but it doesn't really say much. Not having read the classics that he uses for examples (Anna Karenina, Dickens, books many people will have read) didn't help my disconnect, but I don't think that was the problem. It just didn't say much that illuminated how I read, there was nothing that made me say, "ah, interesting." I was hoping to get it at the same time as his other new book, Cover, since I read that they work well together, but the library has a will of ...more
Jo
May 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, kindle, ebook
This was an excellent book on the visual image provoked by good writing. It was interesting to me because I typically don't see images when I read. I see the words on the page. My daughter thinks I am very strange as she sees things like a movie in her head when she reads. I would love to be able to do that. After reading this book, I am wondering if perhaps I am just not a careful reader and that is part of the problem. ...more
Susan Barber
Feb 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
“If books were roads, some would be made for driving quickly - details are scant, and what details there are appear drab - but the velocity and torque of the narrative is exhilarating. Some books, if seen as roads, would be make for walking - the trajectory of the road mattering far less than the vistas these roads might afford. The best book for me: I drive through it quickly but am forced to stop on occasion, to pull over and marvel.”

I really, really enjoyed this book for several reasons. Firs
...more
Clare Carter
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
So I do not normally read nonfiction, but I read this on the recommendation of my friend Ellie and WOWZA as both a reader and a writer this blew my mind just a little bit.

A lot of things definitely went a bit over my head and also some of the points seemed to contradict each other a bit, but honestly I think I just need to re-read this some point so that I can just delve into it more.

Honestly, this felt like an amazingly well-written essay that has just been packaged in this amazing visual gra
...more
Mary
Aug 05, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction, read-2015
I thought this would be a scientific explanation of how the brain processes words into images, but it's really a showcase of graphic design. Sure, there is an essay about reading, but it's tedious, not illuminating. ...more
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Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and a recovering classical pianist. His designs have been described by The Wall Street Journal as being “the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction.” He lives in New York.

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“If books were roads, some would be made for driving quickly - details are scant, and what details there are appear drab - but the velocity and torque of the narrative is exhilarating. Some books, if seen as roads, would be make for walking - the trajectory of the road mattering far less than the vistas these roads might afford. The best book for me: I drive through it quickly but am forced to stop on occasion, to pull over and marvel.” 25 likes
“Once a reading of a book is under way, and we sink into the experience, a performance of a sort begins...

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.)”
13 likes
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