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Why You Have No Idea What Your Favorite Characters Look Like

Celebrated book designer Peter Mendelsund considers how readers construct (or fail to construct) visual images in their minds in What We See When We Read.

What We See When We Read

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 448 pages
Author: Peter Mendelsund
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-08

A central mystery of reading is the process by which the reader transforms inky marks on the page (or increasingly, bits of digital information manifested on an electronic screen) into a rich panoply of images of people, places, objects, animals—virtually anything and everything. After all, the process of learning to read does not assume that this is an intuitive ability.

New readers, at least children, are typically coaxed into reading with “picture” books, in which visual imagery dominates the page and a handful of words serve as a supplement (usually by way of explication of what is happening in a given image). It would seem, then, that we are naturally visually-oriented creatures who must be trained, perhaps not always happily, into displacement of pictures as the primary medium of information conveyance in books.

Indeed, the better word is probably “exclusive”, since it is a rare serious novel, for example, that contains any visual imagery outside of the cover art and a jacket photograph of the author. We might say, then, that image and word are in, at best, strained relationship with one another, at worst it's out and out antagonism.

Cue Peter Mendelsund, who is an accomplished book jacket designer and illustrator. His work, now around 600 jackets, accompanies editions of contemporary and classic fiction and translations, both of old and new works. Cover art is a particularly challenging assignment because it must, or at least should, capture some essential truth about the accompanying work but in a relatively simple format. It must, in other words, supplement the work at hand while engaging the eye and interest of potential readers.

Based on a quick survey of images of his work, it would appear that Mendelsund’s aesthetic is hardly uniform but impressively eclectic, so much so that it would be difficult to describe a single or predominant style throughout his work. All of this suggests that Mendelsund is, if not uniquely, at least intriguingly, positioned to meditate on the relationship between word and image, text and picture, eye and imagination. And the heft of the volume, 448 pages, suggests, quite literally, weighty insight.

The contents of What We See, which defy any sort of generic categorization, consist of bits of text—usually meant to suggest aphoristic pithiness—at most a couple of paragraphs in length accompanied by, interpellated with, or jammed up next to a wild array of images—some original, some found, some a combination of the two. The effect is dizzying, and not exactly in a good way. Rather, it often seems an inchoate jumble of words and images that are less whimsical than annoying, less intriguingly surreal than just haphazard.

The effect is abetted by the prose. The work is subtitled “A Phenomenology”, which Webster’s conveniently defines as “an analysis produced by phenomenological investigation” and “phenomenology” itself as “the study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy.” So we are treading in some deep waters here, but the format of What We See simply does not keep the work float and it cannot be called philosophical in any sustained way. Moreover, one need not expect a work of analytical philosophy to be disappointed by observations that frequently break off before they convey much real insight. For example:

Past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment—and in the performative reading moment as well. Each fluid interval comprises an admixture of: the memory of things read (past), the experience of consciousness: “now” (present), and the anticipation of things to be read (future).

This is intriguing, but needs to be taken further. After all, the multi-dimensional orientation of the individual in time hardly seems to be unique to the reading experience. It might be claimed that simultaneous awareness of past, present, and future is a distinguishing characteristic of being human, whatever the activity in which the individual is engaged. The observational format is frustrating because the volume is clearly born out of a substantial and serious engagement with books, and a real love of them, and Mendelsund is certainly onto some interesting points.

If there is a central theme here, it's that books themselves often provide very little way in the way of holistic imagery; rather, they might include a detail here or there around which the reader is expected to generate a composite sense of a character or scene: “Literary characters are physically vague—they have only a few features, and these features hardly seem to matter—or, rather, these features matter only in that they help to refine a character’s meaning.” Well, yes, of course. It's hardly original to note that words are not primarily trying to convey any real visual content at all but, instead, provide literary signification.

In other words, the significance of this or that detail lies in its symbolic content rather than any attempt at verisimilitude. For example, Mendelsund notes of the titular protagonist of Anna Karenina that “…Tolstoy never tires of mentioning Anna’s slender hands. What does this emblematic description signify for Tolstoy?”

One way to begin to answer this is to note that a similar recurring detail is ascribed to Napoleon in War and Peace. Odd, certainly, that two seemingly absolutely dissimilar characters—one a woman trapped in a stultifying marriage, whose passion is proscribed by conventional social sentiment, the other the purported imperial genius who conquered the better part of Europe—should have this feature in common. But if we take physical description as metaphorical, then we might consider the traditional association of hands with control, power, and the capacity for manipulating (from “manus” the Latin for “hand”) things.

With this in mind, perhaps Anna and Napoleon are not so dissimilar after all. Indeed, how much control does either have? Anna’s lack thereof is obvious, subject as she is to crushing social and moral condemnation. Napoleon’s in War and Peace is illusory, as over the course of the novel it becomes clear that no one person can control destiny, his own much less that of an entire continent. Our pretensions to determine fate are absurd and the smallest, most random event can turn the fortune of nations and individuals in entirely unforeseen directions. Only titanic delusion and egoism would lead one to believe otherwise.

This is a (somewhat belabored) way of saying that maybe it matters not so much what we “see” when we read, but what we think. If we acknowledge as much, we might then ask how these things work in tandem with one another and if it's possible to read in many different ways at once, including in imaginary and analytical modes. In any case, one might hope that a phenomenology of reading as visualization—a worthwhile and intriguing project—might at least attempt as much.


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