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Prosaic Hallucination

Peter Mendelsund
What We See When We Read
(Vintage Books, 2014)

“I could begin with Lily Briscoe,” opens What We See When We Read. Indeed, she is an apt starting place for a book that focuses on aesthetic appreciation of literature, seeing as Woolf finishes To The Lighthouse by provoking her readers to compare the novel they have just finished to Lily’s painting. Heavily citing stream-of-consciousness authors such as Woolf, Joyce, and Tolstoy, Peter Mendelsund grants us insight into how he conceives the book jacket designs that have propelled him to the top of the industry, while simultaneously asking what it is about those novels that leaves hazy, intangible images imprinted on our memory the way a captivating abstract or impressionist painting might. Supplementing exposition with illustration, Mendelsund has created a highly original picture book for adults. He continues with To The Lighthouse, citing William Bankes’s perplexity over Lily’s non-figurative representation of Mrs. Ramsay: “Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow.”

Reduction is integral in Mendelsund’s process, as he takes the broad, convoluted ideas that intertwine to form a novel and attempts to distill their essence and transcribe it onto their cover. He posits that all humans use reductive simplification to find trends in everyday life, because grasping the whole is subjectively overwhelming. Mendelsund says, “This inborn ability to extrapolate a whole from a part is fundamental and reflexive, and understanding the part-whole structure enables us, somehow, to see characters, to see narrative, just as it enables us to function, mentally, physically, in the world.” Perhaps our same innate reduction that causes stereotype and assumption can be harnessed if directed towards an artistic medium.

Simplifying life into words is the art of writing. As readers, we reverse this process and extrapolate by adding our own experience. In Mendelsund’s words, “We take in as much of the author’s world as we can, and mix this material with our own in the alembic of our reading minds, combining them to alchemize something unique. I would propose that this is why reading 'works': reading mirrors the procedure by which we acquaint ourselves with the world.” For example, most readers of The Hours have probably not visited the Ouse River, but they are asked to imagine it in the dramatic opening scene, and so they imagine a river they have visited.1 Probably more readers of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer have visited the Mississippi and can conjure a more vivid image for themselves, their memory aiding their imagination. Mendelsund states these ideas in succinct poetic reduction: “River, the word, contains within it all rivers, which flow like tributaries into it,” and “Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory,” displaying his own authorial potential throughout What We See When We Read.

The image of a novel that we build and hold in our mind is integral to our comprehension because the author will constantly be referring back to previous passages, making it difficult to start at your bookmark if you have taken a prolonged break. This is especially true of stream-of-consciousness novels, where the author throws you directly into a character’s inner monologue without the aid of omniscient exposition, the epitome of the “show, don’t tell” approach to writing. Pronouns of people and places that you have no frame of reference for are mentioned, as full comprehension takes a backseat to the experience. Often, the middle and end of a stream-of-consciousness novel will help you make sense of the beginning just as much (or more, as in The Sound and the Fury) as the beginning sets the stage for the middle and end. These novels are particularly fruitful rereads. Each successive reading enhances your image of the novel and understanding of the protagonists to whose minds you have been granted access.

 Does this depth of comprehension make it any easier to draw a portrait of a main character? Though his comic rendering of Joyce’s “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” will garner a laugh, Mendelsund chooses Anna Karenina as his primary muse for this inquiry, showing us three different methods for conjuring an image of her. His closest approximation to the way a reader might see her is dressed realistically but with her face blurred. Turning the page we find a more detailed face in the form of a computer-generated police-composite sketch that uses Tolstoy’s adjectives as a witness’s description. Later, he shows a still of Keira Knightley playing Anna Karenina in the 2012 film, and declares, “This picture … is a form of robbery.” Perhaps he would prefer the grainier footage of Greta Garbo, though Mendelsund clearly prefers the book version.

Mendelsund’s intentions are to leave his readers with a greater awareness of those swirling, fleeting images that rise and fade in our mind’s eye when we have blocked the world from our vision with the printed page. It would not be surprising if reading bedtime stories to his daughters, to whom he dedicates What We See When We Read, inspired this endeavor. It is a reminder of our imaginative nascence, but asks us to go a step further and apply that to literature. Mendelsund has given us a unique invitation, in the form of a grown-up picture book, to cross the bridge between the written word and aesthetics. Perhaps, after reading, it will feel like crossing a stream instead of a river, or does that bridge appear to you without water?


  1. In fact, says that the film adaptation of The Hours (2002) wasn’t shot at the real Ouse because its currents have changed since Woolf drowned herself in 1941.


Brendan Garrison

Brendan Garrison is a Brooklyn-based writer and a Production Assistant at the Brooklyn Rail


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JUNE 2015

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