Tag Archives: Anna Karenina

What We See When We Read – by Peter Mendelsund

download (5)Peter Mendelsund is a cover artist at Alfred A. Knopf. You can see his illustrations and designs at work in his book, What We See When We Read, a reflection on the nature of our experience when we read. It’s not a scientific treatise, but more of a musing. Although the book is 400 pages  it is so heavily (and fascinatingly) illustrated that it is more like an essay than an actual book.

So what do you see? Do we see the whole picture or individual details? Some people tell me they are highly visual. My images tend to be more inchoate: part feeling, part impression, and part random, telling details.

Interestingly, Peter Mendelsund doesn’t entirely believe the people who say they can see images as clear as day. He always asks those people to describe a character they see and invariably they give him a few specific details, descriptions of their movements and lots of adjectives about their personality. He brings up an interesting point that personality, movement, and appearance – in our mind – is often inextricably linked. We mistake one for the other and so on.

Though ultimately, we never really know what other people see and what they mean when they say they can see. If a person could paint what they were seeing, is what they paint really everything that they see? Do they see more or less? When I write, it never comes out exactly as I mean. It is always less than the fullness of my thoughts. Is painting the same?

I have always assumed that one of the reason’s I cannot paint or draw is that I do not have a vivid imagination. I can’t seem to grasp the concept of dimensions (my imagination is essentially flat…or is it?) and I assumed that great artists were the kind of people who could imagine details, but is that really true?

What Mendelsund’s book really captures is the wonderment of reading. Part of the problem, as he points out, is that we are not consciously aware of ourselves when we are reading. We can’t analyze what we see and read at the same time. It’s like trying to analyze one’s half-conscious, dozing state.

Do we see the entire picture or just zero in on certain details? When a long description is provided, do we gradually add to our inner image to create one highly detailed whole or do we see individual details individually, as they are described? Mendelsund also discuses metonymy and how we tend to substitute the part for the whole, like how Tolstoy describes Anna Karenina (Mendelsund’s example) as having grey eyes or slender hands. Do people fill the details themselves or do they never really quite see her clearly beyond those details. What kind of nose does she have? How tall is she? What is her chin like? What is the shape of her face? The shape of her eyes? Any facial blemishes, beauty marks? Does anyone know?

Do any of these actresses look like your Anna Karenina?

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But Mendelsund’s right; we do tend to assign meaning to the few details that are given. No matter how descriptive a writer is, they are never able to give us all the details, so the ones they give tend to be freighted with importance.

Reading is actually an incredibly fluid, dynamic and changeable experience. Mendelsund talks about how we are constantly adjusting our mental images of people, events, and places based on new information and descriptions. But we don’t remember that process, he says. We only remember a cohesive experience that bears no resemblance to what actually happened.

Mendelsund argues that life, like a novel, is full of “cracks” and “fissures,” but that we tend to smooth all that over in our memory. It’s kind of like a movie, actually. Our eye doesn’t see the individual frames, but only the fluid whole that looks like movement. In the end, Mendelsund concludes that authors actually are simplifying and reducing reality (real life, but also how things really look) so that the reader can make sense of it, since no on can absorb or observe everything.

Authors are the curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can – out of disorder they create narrative. They administer this narrative in the form of a book, and preside in some ineffable way, over the reading experience….

We reduce. Writers reduce when they write and readers reduce when they read.

In other words, he believes that we are never really seeing as clearly as we think (though I still don’t really know what it looks like in someone else’s head).

I knew someone who said that reading took her a long time, because she liked to visualize the world and even walk around in it. Another person told me she felt cheated if something like a monster was not described, because it felt more like a void than an actual monster. Others tell me reading is as vivid as watching a movie. My friend Andrea tells me that if she could draw better, she could draw the characters in books exactly as she sees them.

Buster Keaton steps into a movie

Buster Keaton steps into a movie

Sometimes I fear I have an impoverished imagination, which is more emotional than visual. The air can literally be thick with tension from the book and I find myself catching my breath. But my predominate experience of reading is actually aural. I hear voices (creepy, I know). It narrates, it follows the flow of words up and down, modulates, captures the different vocal inflections of the characters or even of the author, stops and pauses, exclaims and whispers.

This is why I have trouble reading contemporary fiction and tend to favor books written at least fifty or sixty years ago, if not older. My inner voice reads a lot of contemporary fiction in a monotone. There is something about the way sentences are structured, especially in American fiction. Too many short sentences? To direct, with the subject always at the beginning and so on? Also, the modern ideal of having the narration be impersonal and divorced from the voice of the author (unlike say, Dickens, who is definitely present in his narrative) can read rather flatly in my head and I simply lose interest.

However, I rarely have trouble with movies taking over my imagination when I’m reading a book (unless the movie is unusually close to the book). If you were to say “Mr. Darcy” right now, I would picture Colin Firth. But if I were to read about Mr. Darcy, I would see someone completely different.

I can, however, occasionally hear the voices of actors while reading, if the dialogue is the same. When I read the opening of Rebecca, I hear Joan Fontaine’s voice narrating (but only during the opening). I also kept hearing Humphrey Bogart reading his lines in The Maltese Falcon. And it is hard not to hear music while reading “Pygmalion.”

What do you see when you read? Or hear?


Posted by on June 22, 2016 in Books


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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.


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