What we see when we read

Years ago, I had the honour of working for Duthie Books in Vancouver. We had a solid inventory, but there were always a few books that defied the standard categories. What We See When We Read, a new treatise of sorts by the celebrated cover designer Peter Mendelsund, is an example of such a book. It's clearly straddling literary criticism and philosophy (which means, in our store, it would go into belles lettres) but its approach is popular, and it would likely get lost amongst Rabelais and his World and the essays of Michel de Montaigne. These are both good titles, but so is Mendelsund’s. The solution is to put a little stack of What We See When We Read on the counter beside the register, and make a display in the window, with one or two companion books, to explain the title to the boulevardiers. But what would the other titles be? A few suggestions:

Italio Calvino, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (1982)

Calvino is both rascally and profound, and but this meditation on storytelling and reading also opens, as Mendelsund notes, in a railway station, “a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” This theme of obscurity is important for What We See: the sense that, like printed words in dreams, the solid images that reading summons melt into fog when directly interrogated. The sense that one sometimes has from Calvino — that one has risen up for a moment and seen the world a little clearer, but in a way that's difficult to pinpoint — one feels in Mendelsund’s book too.

Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (2010)

Reading has received a lot of attention of late. Maryanne Wolf brought out her Proust and the Squid seven years ago. Since then we have been treated to Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain (2009), and Oliver Sacks The Mind’s Eye (2010) devotes a well-turned chapter to the subject.

Unless you teach or have school-age children, you have likely forgotten the hours you devoted to colonizing parts of your brain with the squiggles that let you “listen to the dead with your eyes,” as Dehane quotes Francisco de Quevedo suggesting. With practice you mastered the skill of reading, which means that you burned it into your subconscious, in the same way that pianists do when they work on their fingering. This lets us read better, faster, and allows us to understand more when we read, but it also hides the strangeness of reading from us. Sacks’ essay is, as his writing always is, lapidary, but like Wolf and Dehaene, he encounters the strange by looking at our consciousness from the outside in. Mendelsund, as his subtitle suggests, proceeds from the inside out.

Phenomenology asks us to reject the ‘natural attitude’ that things are just as they seem at first glance, and What We See repeatedly upends our common sense notions. With reading this is not hard: reading is strange. The French critic Georges Poulet (whom Mendelsund quotes) went further than de Quevedo (above): in a text the author takes control of your mind. What could be odder than that? We've already mentioned the difficulties we have pinning down the faces of characters in novels, and when Mendelsund asks friends to describe these people, he is offered “one or two physical characteristics...followed by a longer disquisition on the character's persona.” We are here unknowingly equating action and appearance. And do we really read a page in one smooth motion from upper left to lower right? No, we “gulp [words] like water,” we jump forward and back, and our eyes jump along the strings of letters.

To ask the question posed in the title, Mendelsund has in phenomenology chosen an ideal tool, but the question he asks also carefully avoids the difficulties that phenomenology throws up: he doesn't need to bracket out questions of existence, he just needs to ask about how reading feels.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984)

A couple years before Calvino published If On a Winter’s Night, de Certeau asked some fundamental questions about reading in his “Reading as Poaching (Lire: un braconnage),” which is collected in The Practice of Everyday Life. One of the points that he, and Mendelsund, makes is that readers are not passive. In adding The Practice of Everyday Life to the pile I’m not trying to scare you off: although Mendelsund has written a critical essay on reading, he has worked hard, particularly through the use of layout, to make it accessible. But in some things it feels as if Mendelsund got to the party late. There is a robust stream of thought that addresses some of these topics in the work of people like Roger Chartier and D.F. McKenzie.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)

What We See had its genesis in a conversation that Mendelsund had with the writer Peter Terzian about To the Lighthouse. What does it mean to have the picture you have developed in your mind of a fictional location re-written, in this case by historical images of the writer’s life? This also points to the paradoxical delicacy of the visions that a writer can call up in a reader’s imagination. This would be a problem with any book, but it is particularly acute with Woolf (or Joyce’s) fiction: their epiphanies take such total control over our minds that it's a disappointment for that vision to be rewritten. If I pick up a copy of To The Lighthouse I can re-enter Lily Briscoe’s consciousness as she paints, but a photograph of the Woolf’s summer home can collapse the moment.

Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (1967)

Mendelsund is a designer of book covers. His job is to express, in words and pictures, the essence of a book, in such a way that you must reach out and pick it up. He is very good at this, and it is likely that, as a reader of these pages, one of his creations is sitting on your shelves. It's therefore logical that he would use both words and pictures to tackle the problem of reading. While we usually encounter this approach within the envelope of children’s literature and independent (or underground) comics, there is no reason that it can’t be bent towards other topics: The Medium is the Massage is a good example of what can be done at the intersection of text and images.

You’d think that, living as we do in an age of computerized layout, that there would be more books like this, but technology isn’t the limiting factor. It is difficult to get the croissant-like folding of text and image right. Words and pictures are processed very differently in our brains. Add to this the reader’s prerogative to read the words and images as they wish, and the trick becomes quite difficult. Of course we manage this when we watch a foreign film, but this works best when we forget that we're actually reading the subtitles. When we forget the (aforementioned) strangeness.

What We See is not always a two-channel Gesamtkunstwerk: sometimes the lamination between word and picture part and the images are reduced to providing inflection to aphorisms. We get a picture on this spread because elsewhere we have pictures, or because it helps the pacing of the book. Much to his credit, Mendelsund acknowledges the limitations of using so much imagery. But the project is successful: he takes what could be a very dry subject and, using images, gives it juice. I for one think that this book is worth having simply to see a master's take on a difficult form.

From What We See When We Read: A Celebrated Book Designer’s Unusual Treatise on the Written Word The Globe and Mail, August 29, 2014, web. Edited by Lisan Jutras.