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Peter Mendelsund, a book-jacket designer, writes about the experience of reading.
Peter Mendelsund, a book-jacket designer, writes about the experience of reading. George Baier IV

Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” revolves around the Ramsay family’s vacations on Scotland’s Isle of Skye over a decade. It’s one of Peter Mendelsund’s favorite books.

He’s been tempted once or twice to Google whether Woolf’s own family had a getaway like that of the Ramsays, but he has resisted. The Ramsays’ busy summer house, he writes in this unusual, illustrated inquiry into the nature of reading, “is like the rough-and-tumble, rowdy houses my family rents during summers on Cape Cod.”

And the author, a highly regarded book-jacket designer, would just as soon retain his own mental image of the place, thank you very much.


Reading is often considered (especially by those who don’t love to do it) a passive activity. But Cambridge native Mendelsund — who is publishing this title concurrently with another book, “Cover,” an appealing look into his design process — makes a nice case that it is, in fact, a kind of active collaboration.

“What We See When We Read,” itself a work of conceptual design, unfolds the author’s ideas about what makes reading a creative, visual act all its own on pages — some packed with text, others just a line or two — that incorporate sketches, clip art, images of classic book covers and more. It’s less a scholarly manifesto (such as, say, James Woods’s “How Fiction Works” or the Adler-Van Doren classic “How to Read a Book”) than it is a conversation piece, created to entice repeated thumb-throughs.

Because the experience of reading remains extraordinarily difficult to understand or describe, Mendelsund notes, we resort to analogies: It’s like watching a movie, or gazing into a mirror that helps the beholder look inward. Novels are like cartoons, as Italo Calvino proposed in “The Uses of Literature.” Or, better yet, they’re comparable to comic books, with characters performing in panels — scenes.


“I can imagine reading is like withdrawing to a cloister behind my eyes,” Mendelsund writes. Yet “[w]hat I see when I’m reading is not the act of reading itself, nor do I see analogies for the act of reading.”

There’s a lot of addition by subtraction going on here. Despite the book’s title, there is no definitive explanation of what we “see” when we read, of course. That, effectively, is Mendelsund’s point. Like literature itself, he doesn’t have the answers, but he’s eager to raise the questions.

When an author describes a character, he points out, she often does so with just a few linguistic brush strokes — a hardness of the eyes, say, or long, slender fingers, or a chipped tooth.

“Characters are ciphers,” Mendelsund writes. “And narratives are made richer by omission.” Just as in music, “notes and chords define ideas, but so do rests.” Essentially we take what the author gives us and imaginatively fill in the blanks.

By offering clues but leaving more to the imagination, all well-written novels, regardless of genre, are mysteries: “This is one reason we bother to turn a book’s pages.”

Intriguingly, he suggests that while average readers often assume their favorite authors have great imaginations, the inverse might be true. The author’s mind may not be freer than ours, he writes: maybe “his mind is less wild, and therefore it is easier to subdue his thoughts, tame them, and corral them onto the page.”


No mention is made of e-books, and Mendelsund is apparently not interested in statistics about the relative health of the publishing industry. Human beings read simply because it is in itself a creative act, he argues. In fact, it can be an exalted undertaking.

“Can the visions of literature claim to be, like religious epiphanies, or platonic verities, more real than . . . reality itself?”

As Molly Bloom said: yes.

James Sullivan, author of four books, can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.