What We See When We Read

In many ways, What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund is a difficult book to get through as it invites the reader’s mind to wander, to figure out what, exactly, we visualize when we read. Can you picture the protagonist from the last book you read? How about a secondary character? What do you see most vividly? How much description did the writer give you? Before you know it, you’re down a rabbit hole and the page is forgotten.
May Hearth Book ClubReading this book made me analyze what I see when I write. Sometimes I feel like I’m transcribing a movie. The point of view of the panel I’m describing is the point of view of the camera. The lighting is the same, too. But when I move to the characters, I can’t always describe their noses and cheekbones except perhaps to say “she had her mother’s cheekbones and coloring,” which isn’t necessarily helpful when I don’t describe the mother’s face. All writers are influenced by those who came before them- we’ve heard this many times. So how much of these characters- supposedly my characters- are actually someone else’s?

Mapping is a reoccurring theme in our discussions. I’m not sure how much of this can be attributed to our second book club selection, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or simply our minds. Regardless, Mendelsund devotes a section of the book to mapping. You may remember a teacher mapping a plot for you (it probably looked a bit like a triangle) but Mendelsund looks at more confusing, free-form maps. As both a teacher and a writer, I love this section. I’ve mapped emotional arcs using similar drawings and explained concepts to students with similar scratches. While I may not agree with the way Mendelsund maps certain books, it makes me want to layer a number of people’s maps of the same book. (If you read our July selection,Americanah, please bring a map!)

My mom brought up something I’d also thought of when reading: Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels. In these novels, the protagonist travels into fiction and explores how it’s created. Much of what Mendelsund discusses is brought up in this series (published before What We See When We Read) but, as a postmodern work of fiction, in a hilarious way. Thursday Next remarks how two characters from different books often remind readers of each other, because they’re actually played by the same person in the book world. Meanwhile, carrot sticks are orange rods (based on their descriptions), there are few smells, and people who are sick either have a major illness or a minor head cold (nothing in between). Personally, I think Fforde’s books are a more enjoyable way to experience these revelations, but Mendelsund’s book has its own merits, and is certainly more discoverable for those more interested in nonfiction or who prefer to avoid the delights of fantasy. Either way, it’s an interesting concept to consider.

Thank you to everyone who joined us. If you weren’t able to make it, I’d still love to hear your thoughts! Better yet, join us for a future book club. For June 24th we’ll be reading The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman. For July 29th we’ll be reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Hope to see you then!

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