Book Notes: How much does reader need to be told?

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

By Rae Padilla Francoeur

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“What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology with Illustrations,” by Peter Mendelsund. Vintage Books, New York, 2014. 419 pages, paperback. $16.95.

“What We See When We Read” is a reading experience about the experience of reading fiction. Author and book cover designer (Knopf) Peter Mendelsund’s style — a meandering conversation that pauses to question, assert and reconsider — is reinforced with typographical and pictorial imagery. This book doesn’t talk at you in sequential narrative, just as reading — maintains Mendelsund — isn’t a direct transference from page to brain.

Mendelsund says he likes to ask his friends, shortly after they’ve read a novel: What does the protagonist look like? Even to this talented graphic designer, sophisticated reader and classical pianist, a character is, “in my mind, scarcely a perceptible hieroglyph.” Why? We as readers are more attentive to a character’s behavior than we are to his or her physical description, which, more than likely, authors coincidentally seem less inclined to provide. And they draw meaning from behavior.

This tendency for people to infer is human. Just as writers reduce when they write — creating narrative from the chaos of life, readers reduce when they read. That’s how our brains work, says Mendelsund. The process allows us to “apprehend our world” in ways that we can manage, rather than be swamped by, information. “Through reduction, we create meaning,” he says. He says we can reduce respectfully, which I take to mean that we can be creative and sensitive about our need to reduce, thereby avoiding the traps in stereotype.

When we want to co-create, we read, says Mendelsund. We personalize art, make it ours. “Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated,” he writes. Authors who publish understand the process, for every reader he or she meets comprehends through their own lens. Yet the more experiences and knowledge a reader has, the closer to the author’s view the reader is likely to come.

Mendelsund contends that we cannot recall the details of a character’s physical appearance or the character’s home or some other thing or place that’s depicted. We have to use what we’ve already got stored. If we are asked to imagine the King’s River in California, for example, when we’ve only seen the Connecticut, we are going to imagine some version of the Connecticut. More likely we will remember the feeling of the river rather the river itself. It’s the idea of the river and the emotions evoked by that river that we ultimately take away. “Words,” write Mendelsund, “potentiate meaning” because they have the power, done well, to “unlock the accumulated experience of the reader.”

A wonderful example is Kafka’s insistence that the publisher of “Metamorphosis” not depict the likeness of a bug on the novel’s cover. “Not that, please not that!” Kafka writes. The more and the richer the readers’ imaginings, the better.

“So little is needed from the author, when you think of it,” Mendelsund writes.

But what there is better be good. And good is a fine topic for another of Mendelsund’s engaging and erudite conversations.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at Read her blog at or follow her @RaeAF.