Saturday, 18 February 2017

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Peter Mendelsund has designed some of the best book covers of recent years, and one of the reasons that they are so successful is that they arise from his careful reading of the texts. In this book, which reminds me of Ways of Seeing and The Medium is the Massage in its interplay of image and text giving an appealingly light touch to a heavy subject, he is particularly interested in the visual effects of reading. These visual effects are non-optical and comprise mental images fished into awareness by the ‘unseen’ black hooks of text; they are the fictional correlative of the visual effects fished into awareness by ‘actual’ optical stimulation. I suppose a difference between reading text and reading actuality is that when reading text the scope of our awareness has been set for us by the authority of the author (our surrogate self), whereas actuality is undifferentiated and incomprehensibly overstimulative and the necessary repression of stimuli in the reading of it is dependent on personality, conditioning, socialisation and practicality. Emphasising that he is interested in the experience of reading rather than the memory of reading (if such a distinction can be sensibly made), Mendelsund treats in depth an aspect of what I would call ‘the problem of detail’: what is the role of the reader in ‘completing’ the text? Whereas the reader’s ‘actual’ experiences of course inform and colour their reading of detail, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Mendelsund’s opinion that when reading we ‘flesh out’ characters in our imagining of them or place them in ‘familiar’ contexts – while we are reading we may well also indulge in such extra-textual self-massage, but I don’t think that this is the reading itself. 

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