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What We See When We Read Paperback – August 5, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for What We See When We Read:
“A playful, illustrated treatise on how words give rise to mental images. . . . Mendelsund argues that reading is an act of co-creation, and that our impressions of characters and places owe as much to our own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors. . . . [What We See When We Read] explore[s] the peculiar challenges of transforming words into images, and blend[s] illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory.” —Alexandra Alter, The New York Times

“Mendelsund, throughout this thought-provoking book, helps the lay reader contemplate text in ways you hadn’t thought about previously.” —Los Angeles Times

“A conversation piece, created to entice repeated thumb-throughs. . . . [The author is] a highly regarded book-jacket designer. . . . Reading is often considered (especially by those who don’t love to do it) a passive activity. But Cambridge native Mendelsund . . . makes a nice case that it is, in fact, a kind of active collaboration. . . . What We See When We Read, itself a work of conceptual design, unfolds the author’s ideas about what makes reading a creative, visual act all its own on pages—some packed with text, others just a line or two—that incorporate sketches, clip art, images of classic book covers and more.” —The Boston Globe
"A welcome and fascinating new book." —The New York Review of Books

“The liveliest, most entertaining and best illustrated work of phenomenology you'll pick up this year. An acclaimed book-jacket designer and art director, Mendelsund investigates, through words and pictures, what we see when we read text and where those images come from. His breakdown of the reading and visualizing processes yields many insights. . . . Playfully, he offers us a police composite sketch of Anna, based on the description in Tolstoy's novel.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"Wow. . . . Mendelsund has changed the way I think about reading. Like the Wizard of Oz tornado, Mendelsund's lucid, questing prose and his surprising, joyful visuals collide to create a similar weather system inside the reader. Not only are you carried off to Oz, but you're aware at every moment of the cyclonic action of your reader's mind and your reader's imagination. It's so smart, so totally original, so beautiful. This is the perfect gift for anyone who has ever blinked awake inside a book." —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

“[Mendelsund] produces a kaleidoscopic, immersive experience that successfully combines text, graphics, illustrations, cover images and more into a cohesive whole. It’s a book to be read, reread, shown to perspective graphic designers and shared.” —Kirkus
“[A] sort of epistemological exercise that, at its best, calls all sorts of associations to mind. It summons a mental flood. . . . Mendelsund is an adept memoirist; the personal material in this book resonates. He notes that we can read novels quickly, as if driving through them, or slowly, as if walking, and have distinct experiences. . . . [He] keeps his tone light while thinking deliberately about fundamental things.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Mendelsund, one of the truly great book-cover designers, explores what we see when we read, in a volume packed with stunning visuals. It’s a fascinating and enlightening look at something we might not actually realize we’re thinking about with every word we read.” —Flavorwire

"A deconstruction of the visual experience of reading, a heady mixture of philosophy and neuropsychology. . . . Peter Mendelsund is astonishingly good at what he does." —The Rumpus

"Amazing. . . . Sparkling with verbal as well as visual wit and the personable exhilaration of one of the best conversations you've ever had, What We See When We Read opens one's eyes to that special brand of blindness which makes the vividness of fiction possible. It reads as if the ghost of Italo Calvino audited Vladimir Nabokov's literature class and wrote his final paper with the help of Alvin Lustig and the Radiolab guys." —Chris Ware, author of Building Stories

“Quirky and fascinating. . . . Mendelsund draws our attention to things we may not be fully conscious of when we immerse ourselves in a narrative. . . . We See When We Read will make passionate readers think about things they may largely take for granted when absorbed in a book and spark further thoughts about what the pleasurable experience of reading is all about.” —BookPage
“Intriguing. . . . A truly remarkable book.” —
“In this brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art, Knopf associate art director and cover designer Mendelsund inquires about the complex process of reading. . . . The book exemplifies the idea that reading is not a linear process. Even if readers follow consecutive words, they incorporate into reading memories, distractions, predispositions, desires and expectations. . . . In 19 brief, zesty chapters, the author considers such topics as the relationship of reading to time, skill, visual acuity, fantasy, synesthesia and belief.... Mendelsund amply attains his goal to produce a quirky, fresh and altogether delightful meditation on the miraculous act of reading. —Kirkus (starred)

“A delightful treat for the avid reader. . . . [A] topsy-turvily illustrated marvel. . . . [Mendelsund] maps the dreamscape of reading to show us how the mirage dissolves under close scrutiny but its memory still burns brilliant. What a tangible magic books are!” —Shelf Awareness

“Offhandedly brilliant, witty, and fluent in the works of Tolstoy, Melville, Joyce, and Woolf, Mendelsund guides us through an intricate and enlivening analysis of why literature and reading are essential to our understanding of ourselves, each
other, and the spinning world.” —Booklist
“This examination of how words on a page become pictures in our brains is blowing my mind a little in the best possible way.” —BookRiot

"This is not a book, this is a sacred text. It inspires, it expands the mind, it proves that Mendelsund is a total freaking genius." —Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers

"Brilliant. Peter Mendelsund has peered into our messy heads and produced an illuminating, kaleidoscopic meditation on reading. Also on seeing. And understanding." —Jim Gleick, bestselling author of The Information

"Peter Mendelsund is to the art of  book design what Walter Murch is to the art of  film-editing. That, of course, is the highest praise  imaginable." —Geoff Dyer, author of Another Great Day at Sea

Praise for Peter Mendelsund's work:

"He's the exact visual correlative of what I think contemporary literature should be, but usually isn't doing." —Tom McCarthy

"Peter Mendelsund pushes the visual and the verbal into unforeseen alliances. These alliances feel inevitable, establishing exactly the right balance between the timely and the timeless." —Jed Perl

"When I first spoke with Peter, after he'd begun work on the jacket for The Flame Alphabet, I was struck by how carefully he'd read the book. . . . To have it from a designer is unnerving and, of course, a piece of very good luck. When he asked me if there was anything I had in mind for the jacket, I knew by that point that I did not want to get in his way or even to put my voice in his head. I wanted an original Mendelsund." —Ben Marcus

"Once in a while I'm presented with design that crosses the barriers of cultural references and visual language—that feels universal—that feels like the perfect start to the story; design that I don't want to reader to forget, but to carry with them. These designs are Peter Mendelsund's." —Jo Nesbø

"All of Peter's covers are funny, smart, and beautiful. And all of them say something about the visual nature of reading, writing, and perception. Each one is a poem. Look at them closely." —Jane Mendelsohn

About the Author

Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and a recovering classical pianist. His designs have been described by The Wall Street Journal as being “the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction.” He lives in New York.

See all Editorial Reviews

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Best Books of the Month
Want to know our Editors' picks for the best books of the month? Browse Best Books of the Month, featuring our favorite new books in more than a dozen categories.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 5, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804171637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804171632
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #110,573 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 66 people found the following review helpful By K. Bunker VINE VOICE on July 2, 2014
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
To rephrase this book's title, what do we "see" when we read? What images flow through our minds, and what is the relationship between those images and the text on the pages? What does Anna Karenina (the one in the novel, not the one in the movie) look like? What does she look like to different readers? How does this appearance correspond to what Tolstoy actually wote to describe her?

These are interesting questions -- or at least they ought to be. But from the whole of this book, I can't remember a single interesting insight, observation, or thought. It seemed to me that Mendelsund had almost nothing to say on his subject that wasn't blandly obvious, despite the often enthusiastic language of his delivery. On the rare occasions when he wasn't stating the obvious I usually disagreed with him, but even that disagreement didn't set any sparks flying in my brain; the notions I disagreed with were uninteresting or undeveloped as well as unconvincing. He says at one point, for example, that "description is not additive." Yes it is, say I; a pink elephant is a very different thing from a tiny pink elephant with bright blue ears standing in a field of flowers. But Mendelsund wanders away from this thought without defending it or devoting any time to it, so... meh.

About 3/4 to 7/8 of this book's 400 pages of content consists of various sorts of illustrations (or just empty space). The illustrations are of course meant to support and add to the text, but it seemed to me that the vast majority of them contributed little or nothing. As for the text, I found Mendelsund's writing style somewhat annoying. He rarely goes more than a paragraph or two without interrupting himself with a footnoted or parenthetical side-comment.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book is one of a kind, combining illustrations and text to explore how readers visualize fictional worlds. Do you know what Anna Karenina looks like? How about Buck Mulligan? Fiction just doesn't do the kind of complete and boring description it would take for you to recognize Anna or Buck on the street. Instead, hints and isolated bits are used. But we think we see the characters, and the settings, and the action. And how does the experience of watching movies or the experience of controlling a first person video game infect how we perceive fictional worlds? How do we use our imagination when reading?

Mendelsund, who as a book and book cover designer is well qualified to talk about picture and words, treats us to a witty exploration of questions you may have thought about, or may think you know the answers to. As in any exploration of ideas, the questions are more important than the answers, which you must furnish for yourself in any case.

If you're interested in the experience of reading, and you have a good acquaintance with the classic works of literature he uses throughout, you'll enjoy this. It is a visual and verbal treat - check out the Moby Dick Game Controller illustrated on page 277.

Don't expect a scientific consideration of the mechanisms of reading - he mentions saccades only once or twice - and make sure you are ready to follow his thoughts and yours. If you are, this is a superb treat that will have you thinking for a while.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Robert D. Harmon VINE VOICE on July 15, 2014
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a quirky but original approach, but perhaps it's the best way to go at it -- how indeed would an author describe what we see when we read? Rather than say it in words, which could very well be dry or convoluted, this author has taken a scrapbook approach, a collage of short text, pictures, sketches and concepts. It works; the result is a lively and thought-provoking look at the process of reading. It's a fast read but worth re-reading later, as the insights are many and often profound. I also recommend this book for the young adult category, not just for adults, as it says much about a thought process, and an important personal skill. Highly recommend.
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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful By D. Sorel VINE VOICE on July 21, 2014
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I think it's clear that if you're writing a review won Amazon for a book, then you enjoy reading. But let me be clear: I LOVE READING! I even own a book called "How to Read a Book." If you were to ask me if I am addicted to anything, I would have to say that it's books and reading. With that on the table, I think it's obvious that I would want this book for my collection. First of all, it was advertised to me as what happens to our brain when we read. Awesome! Science geek + book worm = my wheelhouse! It was also stated that it would be filled with pictures and beautiful designs. The comic book lover and art dork just about did back flips. But when this arrived on my doorstep and I opened it up...I could not contain my sadness and distaste!

First of all, I read this book twice and still have no clear idea what it's about. It's supposed to be about the consciousness of reading and yet I felt like I could barely read it. The designs were so obtrusive that I lost my place multiple times. This is especially troubling when many of the pages only have one sentence or even one word!

Then, I tried to approach this book as a "food for thought" or conversation starter. I was a bit more successful but the statements that provided the "food for thought" were not anything worth mulling over. For example, one of the thought prompts was about how we think about Anna Karenina after we read it. Do we know what she sounds like? Looks like? How does that compare to how other people read/view her character? Well, if you're any kind of serious reader then you already know that people view characters differently. Just look at the backlash from a film adaptation of a movie: Harry Pottery doesn't look like Daniel Ratcliffe!
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