2014 Book of the Year: What we see when we read

Book of the Year, Best Non-Fiction. What we see when we read by Peter Mendelsund. Another fine recommendation from the Ron Kaplan blog (I even heard the author being interviewed there), this is an intriguing book. Mendelsund investigates not only the physical act of reading, but focuses primarily on the mental relationships that develop during the process between the reader and the author and the reader and the characters described by the author. I especially liked the idea of the “’eye-voice span,’ which is the distance between where our eyes are looking on the page and where, on the page, our inner voice is reading.” This creates a fluid activity of “the memory of things read (past), the experience of a consciousness ‘now’ (present), and the anticipation of things to be read (future).”

He also discusses how reading is a collaborative effort between reader and author because “good books incite us to imagine – to fill in an author’s suggestions.” But it’s also not a completely shared event: “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: What we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. … We colonize books with our familiars; and we exile, repatriate the characters to lands we are more acquainted with.” Further essays describe how the narrative voice can change our internal camera viewpoint, how our imagination is shaped by our memories and the how, ultimately, we are constantly filtering and adding information provided by the author to create the world in our own minds. Some of these topics could get pretty deep and could easily have become bogged down in academic jargon, but Mendelsund uses illustrations and sparse text on every page spread, which keeps things moving along. This book will make you think about how you read, but won’t overwhelm you in the process.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


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