Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read  What We See When We Read is Peter Mendelsund’s written and pictorial meditation on the act of reading.  It asks the question, aside from words on a page what do you see when you read?  How clearly can you picture the character or the setting you read about? Sure you know the character has big brown eyes because it says so in the book, but what does the nose look like?  After reading this book I think the answer to the question of what I see when I read is both more and less than I thought.

If you asked me what I see when I read before reading this book I would have said I see vividly.  In fact, that is one of the reasons why I love reading.  It is why if there is a book and a movie, I want to read the book first and create my own mind pictures.  With movies it feels like someone has done all the imagining for me and while it’s cool to see another person’s idea of a story, I prefer creating my own version (at least at first).

What Mendelsund points out is that I probably don’t see as vividly, or perhaps a better word would be literally, as I think.  Authors gives us far fewer adjectives that we may realize.  Readers usually get hints of a person – blue eyes, raven hair, caramel skin, ivory skin, long hair, curly hair, plump, rail thin, slender fingers.  Or in lieu of bodily characteristics an author might describe how a character moves through space or is positioned in space – gracefully, clumsily, at breakneck speed, or slumped over.  An author might describe a person’s personality or effect – stately, wise, talkative, or shy.  Rarely do we get a full portrait.  Our visions are far hazier than we might realize.  To the extent I as a reader form a complete picture of a character, a setting or whatever, it is likely that I have pulled an image out of my memory bank and have based my mental picture on that.  This is definitely true in my case as I consciously do this.  One of the things I use Pinterest for is to stockpile of pictures I want to remember for the purpose of imagining later. 

I recently listened to a podcast where one of the speakers was talking about a book called The Lobster Kings.  The podcast speaker said how while reading this book he could smell the salty sea and the fish on the coast of Maine.  I added this book to my Goodreads TBR purely because of that description.  I wanted to know what Maine smells and feels like.  In addition to sight Mendelsund writes about our other senses and how readers again, do not literally smell what they read but I guess the important part is that books make you feel like you can.  Readers smell the freshly baked bread and the day old fish.  They taste the bitterness of the lemon and the sweetness of the cake.  They fell the smoothness of the silk and the cold wetness of the lake.  They flinch at the slap.  They hear the irritation in a speaker’s voice and the eerie quiet of the haunted house.  Good writing evokes the senses.  It is why we read.

The main thing I got from this book, which I enjoyed immensely, is that readers are incredibly imaginative and that reading is itself a creative act in that the reader creates the images in their own mind that go along with the story.  To an extent writing and reading is a collaborative process between an author and a reader, with the author making suggestions and the reader filling in the blanks.

I would recommend this book to those who love books because it will make you think about how and why you read as well as reminding you of the creativity that is inherent in being a reader.  I would also recommend this book to non-readers because it may help them to understand why us readers love reading so much.

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