Book cover
What We See When We Read
Peter Mendelsund

This is not so much a book as a collection of images and ideas that somehow, against all odds, condense into something deeply thought-provoking. It’s a quick read, but one you’ll want to revisit and reconsider. The last page is an invitation to go back to the start and think about each page in a new way.

It is full of precise and concise descriptions of phenomena I think every human can probably recognize, but maybe not really put a name to. I especially loved this description of a psychological sensation I have known most of my life:

I have had the experience of looking at the world in a nonallusive manner. This state of mind comes on me suddenly, and I’m aware of my topographic position, and am newly alert to geometry. Suddenly the world seems a purely optical phenomenon—it is reduced to light and its vectors—and I have become the camera, rather than the photographer. Chronology is rendered moot, and the constituent fragments of the world are no longer subservient to my psychology, and self-consciousness, but are startlingly present at hand. There is nothing cold or unnatural in this state of being, but rather something strangely preconscious.

I’ve always called this feeling Jamais Vu but Mendelsund gets at the idea better here with the word my spellchecker keeps complaining about: “nonallusive”. Yes yes yes.

I could quote dozens of passages of equal intrigue, but instead I’ll say this: If you love to read, if you find the idea of “meaning” inscrutable, if you close your eyes, and you’re not quite sure what you see, then pick up a copy of What We See When We Read and dive in.