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What do we see when we read? And HOW?

What We See When We Read

By Peter Mendelsund


448 pages, $16.95 paper

By Jeff Simon


Once upon a time, when Marshall McLuhan was appointing himself prophet of Western civilization – explicator and prognosticator of the world to come – he seemed to invent a new kind of paperback book.

McLuhan came from literature – modern poetry to be specific – so it was perfectly fitting if he seemed to resemble Gertrude Stein’s description of McLuhan’s much-admired Ezra Pound, the “village explainer” – wonderful if you were a village but if not, not.

Since it was one of McLuhan’s ideas that media had transformed the world into a Global Village he was, in actuality, every bit as wondrous as he intended to be. Our global village needed an explainer and McLuhan was its explainer par excellence.

Not an easy one to be sure. Nor was Pound. But he was, by trade and habit, a revelationist.

The new kind of paperback book McLuhan created with designer Quentin Fiore and “producer” Jerome Agel, was at first called “The Medium is the Massage.” And then “War and Peace in the Global Village.” They were paperbacks in which mini-essays, aphorisms, wisecracks, headlines and well-chiseled ideas were illustrated by Fiore with a maximum of metaphorical freedom.

Because McLuhan seemed to annoy and repulse vastly more people than he dazzled and (uniquely) enlightened, his kind of paperback book has had only a limited number of progeny over the years.

Without any claims whatsoever, now comes a brand new free-form fantasia presented as an aphoristic series of ideas illustrated with metaphorical freedoms that seem to vary from page to page.

Here is one of the great books of the summer – to a certain sort of intelligence, that is. To others of opposite cerebral constitution, it would be an annoyance best left unattended forever and ever.

Just as McLuhan’s reckless world of references, obscure and otherwise and sharp intellectual corners taken at maximum speed, was enough to leave some dizzy and appalled, Peter Mendelsund’s intense concentration on one seemingly small thing tosses around references and wild metaphors at a velocity to leave many speedstruck.

It’s best understood the way jazz was according to Louis Armstrong (or was it Fats Waller?) who said, when asked what jazz was, “ma’am, if you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it.”

Anyone ready, willing and able to deal with Peter Mendelsund’s remarkable “What We See When We Read” will find the author begins by trying to answer that very question. And then moves on from there to define reading books and “reading” (i.e. understanding) the world.

“What We See When We Read” is a marvelous intellectual adventure for all who are packed and ready to leave home for a 448-page journey to thinking differently.

On Page 392 of this book, the author playfully lists “some of the metaphors used in this book to describe the reading experience.” There are 62 of them in all, alphabetically from “arch,” “arrow,” “atoms,” “audience” and “aurora” to “video game,” “walk,” “wall” and “wine.”

What you have to understand is who Peter Mendelsund is to be able to get away with such a book published by Vintage: the associate art director of Vintage’s corporate brother Alfred A. Knopf and (obviously his own description), a “recovering classical pianist.”

If you think of his book as a kind of massive and occasionally difficult piano sonata, you’re on your way to amazement and enrichment.

He begins by answering his very basic question about “What We See When We Read” in this way: something “blurred” like the painting Lily Briscoe is painting in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.”

He then goes on to tell us what reading, say, “Anna Karenina” is actually “like” – which is not something where we picture Anna as “fixed.” To prove the point, he gives us – somewhat hilariously – “Anna Karenina rendered by police composite sketch software based on the descriptions in Tolstoy’s novel.”

Mendelsund drolly understates that he always imagined her hair as being “more tightly curled and blacker.” If you’re not actually engaged in droll understatement you’d probably observe that there isn’t a living soul in the world who ever read Tolstoy’s novel and pictured her THAT way.

But that’s the point – one Mendelsund is making among very many. Characters in fiction are words and actions and moral precepts. Before you begin to picture the “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” who greets us on Page One of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” you have to know who he is to other people and what he does. And then it scarcely matters.

So here is a wild and difficult sonata for brave and adventurous readers performed by a virtuoso reader and commentator who is also a delightfully playful illustrator.

I can’t say I didn’t find this book occasionally confounding, dubious and, for that matter, outright wrong in spots. But when this dazzling performance is over, reading and seeing and understanding – and probably living too – seem to turn all of us into virtuosos.

Jeff Simon is the News’ Arts and Books Editor.