Review: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

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.

Buy the book here…

Michael’s Merry Christmas List

Christmas is almost here and like all book nerds, now is the time to think about the books to buy and give to our loved ones. I secretly try to find books that will turn my friends and family into bibliophiles, it is all about matching the right book with the right person. Here are some suggestions that I am thinking about getting for my loved ones that might help others with books that you might not have thought of before.

The Book with no PicturesThe Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

Nothing will bring more pleasure than giving a friend with small kids a book with ridiculous words. The kids will enjoy making their mother or father act a little childish. The premise of this book is great; it is mixed with humour as well as teaching children about the joys of reading. B.J. Novak is best known for his role as Ryan Howard on The Office but he is certainly a writer to watch.

yes pleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler is a comedian and improv actor currently playing Lesley Knope on the hit sitcom Parks and Recreation. This is fun and quirky collection of essays about Amy Poehler’s life and passions. Yes Please follows in the same footsteps as fellow SNL actor Tina Fey, whose memoir Bossypants, took the literary world by storm a few years ago. If you are a fan of Parks and Recreation I would also recommend Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson). Yes Please also makes a great audiobook.

Choose Your Own AutobiographyChoose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris played Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, he is a Tony award winner and now he has released a memoir with a unique perspective. Mixing the nostalgia of the old Choose You Own Adventure novels with a memoir about pop culture is sure to be a winner for anyone lucky enough to receive this as a gift. Neil Patrick Harris is an incredibly gifted performer who recently transitioned to the big screen with a role in Gone Girl.

station 11Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven has received plenty of hype lately; it is a dark and stylistic post-apocalyptic novel. The book tells the story of a group of thespians who travel around America performing Shakespeare. While the premise of the book sounds a little boring, this book has been doing really well with critics and book lovers around the world. I think it is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I have read in a long time. For fans of books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Passage by Justin Cronin.

The Secret History of Wonder WomanThe Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

I am sure everyone knows someone that is a fan of comic books and let’s face it, Wonder Woman is always going to be one of the greatest superheroes. This book tells the history of not just this iconic superhero but also her creator, William Moulton Marston. This book follows not just the creation of Wonder Woman in 1941 but also the struggle for women’s rights throughout the 20th century. A fascinating book of pop-culture and feminism; this book has plenty to offer.

Merciless GodsMerciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

This is a risky pick and is definitely not for everyone but a collection of short stories from the Australian author of The Slap and Barracuda can make for a great present. This is a collection that deals with Love, sex, death, family, friendship, betrayal, tenderness, sacrifice and revelation so you will need to be very selective about who you give this book to. However Tsiolkas is a great author that is always ready to challenge his readers and that is something I respect.

Foxglove SummerFoxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

If you know people that love fantasy novels then Ben Aaronovitch might be the perfect choose for them. Be warned this is book five in the Peter Grant series but they work well as stand-alone novels too. Peter Grant is a London cop that is part of a small task force that deals with supernatural crimes. Urban fantasy is a great genre that normally mixes fantasy and crime into an urban setting. Think The Dresden Files (or the TV show Supernatural) with a sense of humour. These books are quirky, a little nerdy, but always a lot of fun.

What We See When We ReadWhat We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

This book is a must for all book lovers; it explores the phenomenology of reading itself. From the visual to the images our mind paints while reading, What We See When We Read is just the perfect book to have on the bookshelf. It is a stunning piece of art and literary criticism and will leave all readers pondering the art of reading for a long time. Peter Mendelsund designs book covers and has spent a lot of time working out the philosophy and psychology behind reading. I highly recommend this book.

All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon

As book lovers we always look for ways to put our favourite books into the hands of everyone. All That Is Solid Melts into Air is my favourite for 2014 and if you are a fan of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, then go out and get this book. This novel follows a group of people as they try to live their lives in the Soviet Union, but then the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happens and everything changes. This is a beautiful and haunting novel that deals with the social and political issues of the cold war era.

As you can see, for the most part I have picked books that will easily bridge the gap between TV and movies to books. Most of my friends and family are pop-culture nerds and view TV as the ultimate source of entertainment. This is the main reason why I went for books that will help them transition (hopefully) into a love of reading. Happy Holidays everyone and let me know what books you plan to buy for your loved ones in the comments below.