Is Reading about Seeing?

I am a reading bigot (see my Rules and Myths as an example) so here is another view on reading with some room for further exposure to reading theories.

the reading and writing teacher

eye Image from

On the first day of my reading classes, I tell my students:

“If you cannot picture it, you are not reading it.”

Well, Peter Mendelsund, associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf, disagrees with me in many respects.

In his book, What We See When We Read, Mendelsund attempts to convince the reader that visual images of the reading process are limited, misleading, and even non-existent. I would like to highlight some of his key points from the first half of the book and critique/comment on them one-by-one.

“You may feel intimately acquainted with a character…but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person” (16).

Mendelsund argues that even though the author may focus the reader’s attention on several key physical traits of a character, none of us have a clear mental representation of that character. If we do, it is often either a copy…

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2 thoughts on “Is Reading about Seeing?

  1. Personally, I often have no clear picture of a character I read about, especially the main character. I am inside that person’s head looking out, and I don’t care what they look like, but how they experience their world and react to it.


    1. It’s an old and tired example, but an unreliable narrator is more important to the story than whether he (or she) has a beard and smokes a pipe.

      Point-of-view is certainly more important to the narrative than is physical description, but isn’t “how they experience the world” highly dependent on the type of narration: omniscient, first-person, etc ? Can you get inside the head of an omniscient narrator?

      A question about the concept of the “main character”: is this the character that moves the story along or the character that is moved along by the story?


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