Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

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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“Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News” – A. Brad Schwartz

downloadOn the eve of Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theater on the Air presented a radio drama adaption of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, on CBS. The next day, there were headlines in nearly all the prominent papers detailing mass panic, tales of people fleeing their homes, farmers roaming the land with guns to repel invaders, frightened people shooting at a water tower in the mistaken idea that it was a Martian. The figure that was thrown around, and is still thrown around (it was mentioned in an introduction to an H.G. Wells novel I own) is that around 1 million people were frightened by the broadcast, frightened that Martians were invading America. It was cited as proof both that people are incredibly gullible and also that the radio wielded unprecedented power over the masses.

The trouble is that the hysteria was grossly exaggerated, according to A. Brad Schwartz, in his extremely engaging book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. His book covers a variety of topics: the radio broadcast itself, Orson Welles (which might be tedious for those who are already familiar with his life, but I knew little and found the context fascinating ), about the state of radio in America in 1938, the nature of radio and people’s perceptions of its credibility, the fallout of the “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, the state of radio censorship in 1938, research into the nature of people’s reactions to the radio and a discussion of how the panic got blown out of proportion in the first place.

The script for the radio drama was mostly written by Howard Koch (who became a screenwriter who helped write Casablanca, as well as writing the screenplay for Letter From an Unknown Woman). Most people who participated in The Mercury Theater on the Air didn’t take H. G. Wells’ book very seriously and thought that it was mostly kid stuff. To breath a little life into it. Orson Welles came up with the idea of presenting the story as a news bulletin, with frequent interruptions and news’ flashes. Koch tried to update H.G. Wells’ story, which was set in England, by grounding it in real locations in America, with the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, NJ. He used real street and city names, which lent verisimilitude to the broadcast.

But what Schwartz points out is that most of the people who were frightened by the broadcast did not actually believe that Martians were invading earth, contrary to popular representation. Most people did not catch all of the show (and most missed the opening, where Welles announced that the show was fiction) and as a result believed that either a foreign army was invading (possibly from some nation like Germany – the world had only recently come through the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, which was reported on the radio, which was new for the radio to play such a prominent role in news reportage) or that some natural disaster had occurred, like a meteor strike.

Orson Welles, after the broadcast, caught in an apologetic attitude by a photographer

Orson Welles, after the broadcast, caught in an apologetic attitude by a photographer

Not only does Schwartz explain the myriad reasons why many people were frightened, but he also shows how the entire incident was blown out of proportion, primarily by newspapers. And readers simply accepted the supposed facts reported by newspapers, mostly because it confirmed their conviction that Americans were gullible. The real hysteria, Schwartz argues, was not caused by panicked listeners, but by the reporting. Suddenly, there was discussion about the power of radio, should radio be censored, did this demonstrate how fascism could come to America as Hitler had done in Germany.

But interestingly, many people feared censorship and there were far more letters written to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) defending Welles and pleading for no censorship than there were from outraged listeners wanting the FCC to step in and prevent any abuse by broadcasting companies. The end result, Schwartz argues, is that American radio was too little regulated and that sponsors of radio shows ended up mostly dictating what was heard on air, resulting in less chances taken on diverse shows (like The Mercury Theater on the Air, which had a fairly small audience – it was allowed because broadcast companies had to prove to the FCC that they were educational).

I highly enjoyed the book and the context that Schwartz provides. It gives you a sense of what it would have been like to hear the show, what people were thinking and all the national and world news that went into the everyday understanding of people in 1938. The book also makes you think twice about accepting news, no matter how widely reported.

After the initial broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” many people wanted CBS to re-broadcast it, but CBS refused for fear that they could accidentally cause a second panic. However, it is now available on youtube. Incidentally, the music for the The Mercury Theater on the Air was composed or arranged by Bernard Herrmann…and often conducted (he composed the score for PsychoTaxi DriverThe Ghost and Mrs. MuirNorth By Northwest – not that there’s any music in this “The War of the Worlds”).

I can understand the confusion; you have to listen carefully to fully follow what is happening. There are lots of references to “the enemy,” as opposed to “martians” or “aliens.” There also isn’t a radio break until 40 minutes into the show, at which point there were a lot of relieved listeners.

And here is Orson Welles, talking to reporters about the incident. I found it interesting, in Broadcast Hysteria, to learn that for the longest time Orson Welles was primarily known for “The War of the Worlds” and the supposed mass panic and not for being a cutting edge director. It was only in the ’70s that he began to receive more general recognition for his work in films. Welles would later claim that he deliberately set up his “The War of the Worlds” so it would be taken seriously to show up radio and people’s gullibility, but Schwartz does not find that creditable. There seems to be a lot of evidence that Welles was shaken up after the broadcast by the reaction of the media and the supposed panic (he was told initially that people had died) and was even a little worried that it would ruin his career. Ultimately, it didn’t and Schwartz believes that it was his “The War of the Worlds” fame that he rode to Hollywood, even more so than the buzz he had generated from his presentation of “Julius Caesar” for The Mercury Theater, the theater company he founded with John Houseman. In this interview, he was mostly interested in damage control. He says he’s “terribly shocked to learn” that people believed that aliens were invading earth, but as Schwartz demonstrates, most people did not think that.


Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Books


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