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What We See When We Read
Peter Mendelsund
Penguin Random House
www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/237251/what-we-see-when-we-read-by-peter-mendelsund/ 448Pages; Print, 16.95

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In our emojified world, it’s more obvious than ever that reading is a kind of seeing, an activity in which we respond as much to visual cues as to linguistic meaning. For example, recently I’ve thought about the fact that I tend to favor Facebook’s “love” emoji over the other newly available reaction icons and also over the old “like” button. My hunch is that I reflexively click on the heart less because the emotion it’s supposed to represent corresponds with how I really feel (i.e. that I feel especially ardent towards people’s posts) and more because the heart emoji appeals to me in a way that isn’t reducible to its semantic content. The Facebook heart emoji, after all, isn’t just a shorthand for “love”; it’s also a visual composition, more pleasingly abstract than the other reaction icons, the white heart against the red circular background evoking a paper cutout, or an ace of hearts with its color fields reversed. Unlike Facebook’s other reaction emojis, the heart’s shape stands out starkly, reminding me of how my daughter once instructed me that to draw a heart you make an “m” on top of a “v.”

The pleasure of this sort of defamiliarizing insight (the sort that six-year-olds readily dispense, a welcome offset to their less-charming qualities), is the gestalt-switch it induces—not between two different images but rather between two modes of perception: seeing and reading. Once one has seen a heart as “m over v,” the world shifts, just a little, and the effects ripple outwards: you look at and read the equation for density; I see a broken heart.

Defamiliarization has also historically been one of literary criticism’s stated ends; the taken-for-granted, as Rita Felski reminds us, is critique’s nemesis. However, we generally think of the critic’s mood as the opposite of child-like: knowing, ironic, and suspicious, rather than wide-eyed, playful, and ingenuous. Peter Mendelsund, however, is a critic for a postcritical age. As much a picture book as a book of criticism, What We See When We Read takes playfulness as its modus operandi.

So, what do we see when we read? The answer, of course, is complicated—it depends on who’s reading, and what and how and why, and whether we’re talking about seeing with our real eyes or in our mind’s eye (Mendelsund is interested in both). An example from Mendelsund will give a better sense of his approach. The following text appears, conventionally enough, on the verso page:

  1. 1. Think of the capital letter D.

  2. 2. Now imagine it turning ninety degrees counterclockwise.

  3. 3. Now take it and mentally place it on top of the capital letter J.

Next, on the recto page, the following appears in white, bold text on a black background, the words stacked as shown:

NOW… WHAT IS THE WEATHER LIKE, IN YOUR MIND?

Finally, you turn the page to see a full double-spread graphic of floating umbrellas in a rainstorm. Mendelsund’s point mirrors my daughter’s, so maybe I’m just a soft touch when it comes to these sorts of hijinks: I confess, when I mentally rotated the D and plopped it atop the J, I gasped in wonder to see the image in my mind reproduced before me on the following page, as if a magician had produced my card from his pocket.

One person’s magic, however, is another’s cheap trick. Whether you find your eyes widening in wonder or rolling dubiously as you read Mendelsund’s book will depend a lot on how you feel about antics like this, which do not let up. Although this is one of the more obvious of Mendelsund’s examples, I chose it because it illustrates two of this book’s distinctive traits: first, its phenomenological approach. What We See...

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