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

Book Review (8)

Title: What We See When We Read
Author: Peter Mendelsund
Publisher: Vintage Books
Pub Date: August 2014
Pages: 425
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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 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.


I bought What We See When We Read at Strand Bookstore in New York, after seeing it a few times but overlooking it. Nothing else was really catching my attention, so I went to read this book’s jacket, and I’m so glad that I did.

WWSWWR uses a mix of drawings, graphics, typography, and text to fully express the abstract process that occurs when a reader sits down with a book. In school, this question came up a couple times: Do make books into movies in our mind when we read them? Mendelsund doesn’t think so, and after reading his book, neither do I.

I loved all the examples he pulled from – especially Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because its creative themes fit well inside Mendelsund’s arguments. Other examples come from Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick, and those arguments are just as elegantly defined. But rather than weigh the book down with too many examples and no enough explanation, Mendelsund chose to go as in depth as possible on just a few examples.

The book is a quick, enjoyable read. About half or a third of the pages are illustrations or other graphic devices, and the text is light. What I like about this is the way it freed up my thought process. I wasn’t distracted by long words or cryptic statements, and the time I spent looking at the graphics also gave me a chance to reflect on my own reading process. As Mendelsund is describing his example, and possibly asking the reader questions, I found myself able to close my eyes and try to bring my reading process into motion. It didn’t always work, and a lot of the time I had no idea what exactly it was that I was thinking or picturing, but just as that happened, a graphic or a bit of text would miraculously describe what my mind was trying to do. It’s truly incredible how much this book knows how I read.

WWSWWR got some pretty mixed reviews on goodreads, the main reason being that the author’s reading process did not line up with that of the reader/reviewer. While reading, I kept asking myself “Is that how I think as well?” and “Does that apply to me?” I only found the answer to be no a couple of times.

Book lovers, go pick up a copy if you are curious about how a reader imagines characters. You will not regret it.

About the Author:

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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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