On Reading: What we see when we read

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors. 

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

What we see when we read: A phenomenology with illustrations

by Peter Mendelsund

published by Vintage Books; 2014

I have mixed feelings about the way I read this book. I read it during grabbed moments, between meals (including one I burnt – a good indicator of the level of my engagement with this book yet not so good for the nourishment of my family), on transport, in that half hour in the morning before anyone else rises, rather than immersing myself into it and reading it in a sitting. This has affected the way I have related to the book because it is not a book to be read so haphazardly. It is a book that needs quiet and concentration. Peter Mendelsund is a lauded book cover designer and an associate art director. The New York Times ran an interesting article on him (and this book). I liked Mendelsund’s visual and textual ruminations on reading. His conscious exploration of what it means to be reading, how we view the texts, the images in our mind, the whitespace and ideas that occur on the page as well as the visualisations that the written words create in our own minds. He writes:

All good books are, at heart, mysteries. (Authors withhold information. This information may be revealed over time. This is one reason we bother to turn a book’s pages.) (Mendelsund, 2014, p 122)

Mendelsund’s own book is a mystery when you begin reading through it. It slowly unfolds and reveals through text and illustrations his ideas on the consciousness and the experience of reading. His book is not about the narratives that he uses, Homer and Tolstoy and Dickens serve only as familiar stories to more easily illustrate his examination and weaving of readers’ relationships with the written words. His juxtoposing of text and visuals on each page jarred me out of the way I normally read. I am one that gets lost in words and the worlds that are built around me. A book whose story is powerful and immersive makes me live up to my Shallowreader moniker as I forget to close read, I forget to analyse and I completely forget my own self as I read about others. Mendelsund writes about this. He says:

The story of reading is a remembered story. When we read, we are immersed. And the more we are immersed, the less we are able, in the moment, to bring out analytic minds to bear upon the experience in which we are absorbed. (Mendelsund, 2014, p 9)

This is the feeling I seek when I read, especially when I read fiction. If I am able to analyse it, the book has failed to compel me. Where in a novel, being aware of myself, being alert to my physical world would result in me giving up on the book and moving on to another read, with this book I deliberated over the physicality of my own reading.  Mendelsund has deliberately given me an experience in which I am not allowed to forget that this book is an object and is not an escape for the reader but it is a dissection of the visual process of reading. This book has given me tools to examine my reading spatials, it has made me more alert to my relationship with the fiction I choose and to the fiction that I reject.

Mendelsund’s What we see when we read is very much a sense-making exercise wherein the act of reading is the object that is under examination. It is an intense read and I will definitely need to reread this book as I feel I need a deeper understanding of it.


The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.


3 thoughts on “On Reading: What we see when we read

    • It is on my “To read” list. I will get to him one day. I am building this section on my blog. Watch this space 🙂

      I possibly was premature posting my Mendelsund post. It just found the bookriot podcast with him. I’m listening right now.

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