Peter Mendelsund’s WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ

9780804171632I read this after listening the fabulous Bookrageous Podcast which read and discussed the book for their book club and then interviewed the author. It is a fascinating look at what is happening inside our minds when we read. The author, Peter Mendelsund, is a book designer for Knopf in the US but also has a background in music. He uses his knowledge of design, music and books to explore and to try and make sense of what happens when we read books.

The book itself is intricately designed. There is no way an ebook or other digital edition could do the way the book is presented justice and I highly recommend completely avoiding this book in any other form than print. The text is interspersed with illustrated examples and cues and the form and use of text is also important in conveying the processes reading has on our minds.

I never do this but I found myself marking numerous pages as I ploughed through this book and ended up reading the book in a day. We all have a sense of what we think happens when we read. For many people they describe it as like seeing the movie in their head and most of this book debunks this “myth”. Much of what prompts our imaginations when we read are not visual descriptions but instead other signifiers and traits that stimulate memories of familiar places, people and experiences. More often than not we fill in gaps that aren’t given to us on the page. However I did wonder if your life has had fewer experiences does this limit or diminish the effect a book can have on your imagination? Or is it the opposite? Are our imaginations more free if they are not limited by experience?

The book shows that reading provokes our minds and senses unlike any other medium. Different books (fiction, non-fiction) and different genres (mystery, literary) do this in many different ways. Peter Mendelsund likened this to travelling down a road. Some roads we fly down in our cars while others we walk down more slowly. Some roads (and therefore books) are designed to be travelled slowly and allow closer inspection and reflection. Some roads/books are designed to be quick and driven through at speed. Things rush past because the destination is more important than the surrounds. And some roads/books are both.

One of the things I began thinking about while reading this book was that it would form the basis of an interesting study on the differences between print books and ebooks and how readers interact with them. A lot has been made regarding the impact reading on tablets has on our eyes and brains but there is nothing I’m aware of that looks at whether there are any different mechanics in how we read print versus digital. Two examples Mendelsund uses in the book look at how our eyes and minds actually read ahead. I have occasionally caught myself doing this and have found myself unable to do this with an ebook because of single page layout and lag when “turning” a page. The other example is daydreaming while reading. I find I also do this while reading certain books but much more rarely if I am reading an ebook.

This book made me think a lot about my own reading and I can’t wait to look out for examples when I read my next novel. One of the great mysteries for me as a reader is what makes a book grab me and what makes me put a book down. The processes Mendelsund outlines in this book have given me a greater understanding of what is happening in my head when a book magically grabs me and what is not happening when I just can’t get into a book. I think this book would also give writers a fascinating insight into their craft and the reactions and mechanics words on a page stir up inside readers’ heads. The what and how a character or setting is described is just as important as how each is not described. That balance between the two is the magic, readers and writers alike, endlessly pursue.

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ISBN: 9780804171632
ISBN-10: 0804171637
Classification: Literary reference works
Format: Paperback (203mm x 135mm x 23mm)
Pages: 448
Imprint: Vintage Books
Publisher: Random House USA Inc
Publish Date: 15-Aug-2014
Country of Publication: United States

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