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Trendsetter Roundtable: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

Reading to yourself has often been described as having a movie in your head, but as Peter Mendelsund, author of What We See When We Read (Vintage, 2014) would say it’s so much more than that. Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and art director of Pantheon Books, so he’s definitely the right person to write this book. He’s created some of what I would argue to be some of the most famous and visually striking covers in recent years. Samantha and Jennifer sat down to talk about what they saw when they read this book in particular and what they learned from reading it.

Peter Mendelsund's redesigns of classic James Joyce covers

Peter Mendelsund’s redesigns of classic James Joyce covers

Samantha: Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, roll tape. So! Here we are, having both read What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund a little bit ago. So to start out generally, what surprised you about this book?

Jennifer: I think what surprised me most was how similar everyone’s reading experiences are. Here I am thinking I’m a special snowflake, but really our brains all work in very similar ways. What was surprising for you?

Samantha: I definitely want to come back to your point because that was really interesting for me as well. But I think the thing that kind of wowed me was a little aside that he made about how we all skip around the page when we read. We don’t read all the words perfectly in a row. I knew I didn’t, but I too thought I was a special snowflake.

Jennifer: I’ve always had that problem. I think I notice it the most with comics. I’m always ruining the plot by looking at the last image of the page when I’m supposed to be focusing on the first.

Samantha:It’s funny to think our brains just can’t handle reading properly. But I’m glad you brought up comics because that was very interesting to me as well. Mendelsund was talking about how comics and graphic novels kind of flip the script when it comes to what we see when we read because, well they provide that for us. There’s very little to leave to the imagination. We already see Batman punching someone, we don’t have to conjure up the image on our own, which again. I didn’t think about. I guess for me that’s the great success of this book. He kept bringing up stuff that blew my mind that was probably fairly obvious had I taken the time to think about it.

Jennifer: Another thing that surprised me about the book were all of the images. I mean obviously, Mendelsund is an associate art director and art director and the book is about what we SEE but for some reason, I wasn’t expecting it to be as image heavy as it is. And it was a delightful surprise! (Side note: Because the book is so image-heavy, I recommend reading the print version. The ebook doesn’t do it justice!)

James Bond from The Composites, used with permission

James Bond from The Composites, used with permission

Samantha: Yes! As much as I’d like to pat myself on the back for reading a 400+ page book essentially about a philosophy of reading, there are a lot of images so it goes very fast. I did like how he tried to illustrate some of the phenomenon of seeing while reading. Like when he really pulled apart the physical descriptions of characters Anna Karenina, he really highlighted okay here’s the very little that we’d actually know for sure about this person. It reminded me of that blog, The Composites, in which the blogger takes those descriptions and uses a police sketch artist program to come up with the faces of book characters.

Fun fact: James Bond looks nothing like what I thought he would given Ian Fleming’s description of him.

Jennifer: Interesting, considering Bond has been type-cast consistently since the movie franchise started. But yes! He points out that everyone’s vision of a character/scene/thing is so different, because most authors only give you bits and pieces of what they look like and then you fill in the rest. My favorite example was when he asked the reader to picture a seahorse and then pointed out that everyone’s seahorse will be different, i.e. it might be a cartoon or a realistic one or some other style entirely.

Samantha: Yeah. That goes back to the first point you made about how we all see very similarly when we read. It’s just the little details that are different. He wrote about a book mentioning a dock, and how sure, we’ll all imagine a dock, but most likely we’ll all imagine a dock we’ve seen before, so the imagined docks will mostly all be different, but very much informed by reality. It’s all so crazy and interesting. I think an alternate – and ultimately less classy – title for this book could have been This is Your Brain on Reading. Or This is Your Brain on Books? This is why I don’t come up with book titles.

Jennifer: Two other sections I really enjoyed were the one about authors who sketch out scenes of their writings and the one about those who would draw out maps as visual guides, mostly for their own use rather than for readers.

Samantha: That was so interesting to me. I’d never heard of that before. Outlines, sure. That makes plenty of sense for an author, but very cool to think of an author really drawing themselves a map of the book that was just for them, not like a fancy endpaper for the beginning of the book. Yet another thing I learned from this book.

Something I wondered while reading this though, who do you think the audience of this book is?

Jennifer: I think the audience of this book is anyone interested in psychology, philosophy, or books in general (a.k.a. publishing people such as ourselves). When I finished this book, I recommended it to two people: a friend who loves all things nonfiction and bookish and another friend who studied psychology in undergrad and is always looking to learn more about how the brain works.

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, another design by Peter Mendelsund

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, another design by Peter Mendelsund

Samantha: Well what a perfect answer. I wasn’t really sure who the ideal reader for this would be, but I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head.

Jennifer: Well shucks, thanks. Continuing that thread, why would you recommend this book to our Trendsetter readers?

Samantha: Well I think it’s just a fascinating read for people who care about books, and it’d be doubly fascinating for someone who aspires to work in the art department of a publisher, given the fact that Mendelsund has created some of the most notable and striking covers in recent publishing history.

Jennifer: Agreed! It’d also probably be interesting for someone interested in editorial. They can get to know what details readers might pick up on when they read and they can appreciate the cool layout work that went into making this book.

Samantha: Oh that’s a good call too. Great! Well, go forth and learn about what our brains do when we read, Trendsetters! We both enjoyed this thoroughly.

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