A San Francisco Chronicle and Kirkus Best Book of the Year
A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader.
What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page—a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so—and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved—or reviled—literary figures. In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf's Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature—he considers himself first and foremost as a reader—into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.
Knopf associate art director Mendelsund, praised for creating the "most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction," here takes readers on an investigation heavy on graphics, relatively light on text into the optical world behind words. With humility, humor, and acuity, the book proposes that, much as a piece of fiction might describe a character or world, we can't ever know for sure what the author actually envisioned and that's just as well, because the original conception might not be nearly as appealing as our own. Mendelsund depicts reading retention as a process of visual mutation, during which we edit and keep only what holds significance for us, rather than preserving realistic and fixed pictures. Thus, Flaubert changes Madame Bovary's eye color throughout the novel, and Tolstoy does the same to Karenin's ear size not at random, but in proportion to Anna's dissatisfaction with him. Using such graphic aids as charts, photographs, and paintings, Mendelsund demonstrates why authors regularly leave out details and contradict themselves. Though his central point that it's fortunate that we cannot see the novel's images like we do a film's may seem simple in retrospect, readers will exponentially expand upon their understanding of linguistics and imagination through this well-crafted guide.