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?
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.
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?