What We See When We Read

Peter Mendelsund is an insightful book cover designer and art director who believes that some people judge a book by its cover because that is, after all, what he does for a living.  Mendelsund has now deftly turned his eye from the covers to what resides in between.  


I was reading Mendelsund’s brilliant book about what we see when we read, and had just laid it down, front cover up, to read over the menu in a new bar/restaurant in the Promenade of our new Residence, when the waitress walked over and said: “That looks like a very interesting book”.  It is, and not to take anything away from waitresses but based on the depth of her interest in the topic something told me she was new on the job and was treading water until she found her passion which turned out not to be nursing school.  A significant portion of our patient base has issues with the visual aspects of reading, and based on her interest I invited Nicole to apply to our practice for a position as an optometric vision therapist.  The rest of the story is history in the making, but back to Mendelsund’s work.

Much of what Mendelsund addresses relates to visualization while reading, a topic I addressed in the foreword to a marvelous book from our colleague Dr. Lynn Hellerstein called “See It, Say It, Do It”.  There was a wonderful interview of Mendelsund in The New Yorker magazine, and I was struck in particular by this comment:

“Part of what I wanted to do in ‘What We See When We Read’ is interrogate the ways in which we use the word ‘see.’ Do we mean when the light hits our retina—is that seeing? Do we mean what the brain does to synthesize that information into something understandable? Is it the awareness that we are seeing that is, in fact, seeing? In other words, it’s not just the reading imagination that’s mediated, that’s a construct; all seeing is.”

Mendelsund remarks further:

“Reading is a very particular case, if you think about the arts. With music you have a direct sensory input, the sound of the notes. And with the visual arts or dance or architecture you have a direct visual apprehension of the thing that you’re looking at. With books the sensory information you’re getting is very limited. You can become aware, while you’re reading, of the white page and the black marks on it, but that’s presumably a neutral experience. You’re supposed to see beyond that veil. And I think it’s that extra step that people find anxiety-provoking. But that extra step is what makes reading reading.”

You can gain a further feel for the book, which I now consider a “must read” if you’re a bibliophile, via this sneak preview in The Paris Review.

2 thoughts on “What We See When We Read

  1. Dear Len Thanks so much for the mention.

    Happy New year to you and your beautiful family, especially all those kids with mustaches!


    Lynn F. Hellerstein, OD, FCOVD, FAAO On Sep 26, 2014 5:36 AM, “The VisionHelp Blog” wrote:

    > Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD posted: “Peter Mendelsund is an > insightful book cover designer and art director who believes that some > people judge a book by its cover because that is, after all, what he does > for a living. Mendelsund has now deftly turned his eye from the covers to > what resides”

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