What We See When We Read

What We See When We Read is a marvelous, insightful book by Peter Mendelsund. When I picked it up for one of my book clubs I found the title intriguing and a quick glance inside grabbed my attention with its interesting, ever-evolving format. As an avid reader and writer, I allowed myself to be sucked in with delight at the prospect of advancing my skills. Although published in black and white using a variety of fonts, photos, illustration, and diagrams, this book paints vividly bright, colorful pictures with ease as it strikes the imagination and insight of the reader.

Mendelsund reminds the reader that reading is an art as we take letters and words and then we create meaning through interpretation and by integrating our life’s experiences into the descriptions and details offered by the author. As a teacher this explains to me how some kids read a story and excitedly draw up the characters and their actions with intensity. This is completed almost instantaneously as they utilize the events, happenings, and adventures of their life and apply these to the story. For other children, picturing a scene and sensing a character is far more difficult. Their years of growing and mind development have been with video games or movies, in shelters amidst upheaval, or in literacy poverty. Lack of encounters with lakes and streams, plants and animals, cities and farms, the scent of pine, the feel of silk, the touch of an ocean breeze, and all of those other intangibly tangibles often makes imaginings bleak and void.

As mentioned, many topics of reading are discussed in the book through the use of a variety of methods and styles. Quotes pulled from stories are arranged in a fashion so that the reader can dissect and study as s/he draws conclusions about author plan and intent. One of the greatest points is that the reader is permitted to use his/her mind, imagination, and background knowledge to construct meaning and build understanding. This is quite unlike many college English 101 courses where students are taught that the author intended just one interpretation (that of the instructor) and the rest of our thoughts and reflections were juvenile and incapable of adding value to the discussion.

A second point that caught my attention was “synesthesia”, when terms take on actions the reader does not expect. Some examples include when a scent takes on a sound such as “the resonate pounding in my brain of the acrid vinegar” or a sound becomes visual like “the soaring birdwing notes emitted by the flute fluttered and trilled with the breeze”. I love this idea and recognize that this tool provides deep meaning as it expands a scene for the reader by extending the power of the senses. This technique and the one mentioned in the paragraph before exemplify how richness of life and living create a wide foundation and abundant context for analysis and interpretation.

“Imagination, you could say, is like an ‘inward eye.'” This quote by Peter Mendelsund is also a summary of the entire contents of the book. We often think of imagination as an outward expansion of brain-generated ideas, looking at the world to perceive its contents. Actually imagination requires probing and digging from far within the mind and soul, delving into experiences, beliefs, and how we have shaped our unique, individual world. This book is an excellent, insightful read that ramps up the intuitive, perceptive talents of the reader and the writer who travels its pages.