What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund


Mendelsund is an art director at Alfred A. Knopf, so naturally he thinks visually. He has to depict an entire book in a single cover image, and since his career relies on this ability, he’s given it a lot of thought.

The central idea of WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is that novelists don’t describe every physical feature of a hero the way they’d describe him to a police sketch artist. An author’s language is more figurative, evoking a picture through action and emotion. Therefore, is it any wonder that everyone visualizes characters differently? This “insight” is not groundbreaking, and Mendelsund never gets beyond this obvious assertion into anything noteworthy or useful.

WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is heavily illustrated, but the pictures don’t add anything. They are mere gimmicks—things like movie stills or pages of text with most of the words blacked out or pages with a single word in a huge font.

The text is broken up with these heavy-handed visuals, making a murky book even murkier. WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ wanders all over the place, raising questions (“How do you know what Anna Karenina looks like?”) without ever giving answers. Mendelsund clearly did no research into neuroscience, psychology, or pedagogy to pinpoint what we actually see in our minds when we read.

Even on the level of a personal essay, this book doesn’t work. It’s like one of those late-night college gabfests when the beer is gone and the dorm is quiet and you have to get up in a few hours but the conversation is so interesting because at that point, even the most bland ideas seem profound.

There is nothing deep about WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ. Luckily, it’s a short book and I finished it quickly. Now I can turn my attention to a well-written novel. As I read, I will enjoy the unique pictures in my mind, knowing that I’m cooperating with the author in putting them there, which is a pleasant (but not amazing) thought.


WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

2 thoughts on “What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

  1. I like the concept though. I deliberately keep my character descriptions somewhat vague so the reader can project their own vision onto the story.

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