What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology with Illustrations by Peter Mendelsund (New York: Vintage Books, 2014. 448 pp)

Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf, the art director of Pantheon Books, 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.

Why Read?

Why read? In an age of mass media, doesn’t it seem a touch quaint? Our iPhones can keep us entertained indefinitely with the amount of apps available, not mention the Internet sitting in your pocket. We live in the Golden Age of television; high quality shows illuminate the small screen daily. Seemingly, we yearn more and more for instant gratification and the ability to consume media as quickly as possible.

So again, why read?

I have my reasons. A big slice of the pie goes to my quest for learning. I need to read because I want to know more. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the words on a page become a part of who I am and what I believe—although I hope always to remain critical in my approach. There’s also an element of escape. It’s nice to go places in the solitude of my mind, without leaving my couch.


But what’s happening when I read? In What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund explores the phenomenology of reading with fascinating results.

A quick read, focused equally on content and design, Mendelsund breaks down some principles behind what is happening in mind of the reader.

Due to layout, What We See When We Read offers a series of quips—small ideas that orbit around the general theme.

The notes are fascinating. For example, consider some of your favorite literary characters (choose ones that haven’t been immortalized in film). Can you describe these characters? Interestingly, the average person is unable to sketch these characters with any definition. Mendelsund notes,

“Literary characters are physically vague—they have only a few features, and these features hardly seem to matter—or, rather, these features matter only in that they help to refine a character’s meaning. Character description is a kind of circumscription. A character’s features help to delineate their boundaries—but these features don’t help us truly picture a person” (30).

Characters, then, exist not so much in the tangible, but in the nascent other.

Reading is a phenomenon unlike other visual narrative forms because it allows us to take part in the creative process.

“When we want to co-create, we read. We want to participate; and we want ownership. We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude—because the sketches, at least, are ours” (198).

While film shows the story, a book asks the reader to imagine the story, meaning that while we all may read East of Eden, our understanding of the characters and the golden hues of Northern California will differ.

But ultimately, a book exists as the conduit between author and reader:

“Novels (and stories) implicitly argue in favor of philosophical versions of the world. They assume, or set forth, an ontology, an epistemology, a metaphysics… Some fictions assume that the world is as it seems; other fictions tease and worry at the threads of the known. But it is in a novel’s phenomenology, the way in which a piece of fiction treats perception (sight, say), that a reader finds a writer’s true philosophy” (270).

When we read, imagining narrative within our mind’s eye, we forge a path to the points an author makes. This phenomenon is one of the critical points that make reading special.

Long Live the Book

Many will ask about the importance of reading. Many ponder the death of the book. But What We See When We Read extends the magic experience one can only find with a book. As long as we continue to draw deep relationships with the words on the page, books will have its place.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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