What do you see when you read?

Oct 17, 2014 | 2 comments

Book Cover by Peter Mendelsund

Book Cover by Peter Mendelsund

Yesterday I listened to book cover designer Peter Mendelsund talk about his new book, What We See When We Read. During his career, he has designed hundreds (“600 to 1,000” he said) of book covers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, among others. In order to come up with his design, of course, he has to read the book – sometimes several times – and a lifetime of coming up with the quintessential visual to illustrate a book has led him to some interesting conclusions. They are the basis for his book.

For instance, Mendelsund contends that we don’t really visualize book characters fully, even when the author gives us a lot of information which, he says, they usually don’t. A few descriptors – “dark curly hair, average height, smiling green eyes” might be all we are given; we are left to fill in the blanks. But that’s not the way we read.  The character or the setting remains hazy, perhaps a conglomerate of people we know or places we’ve been.  He contends that if the very character were to walk up to you on the street, you wouldn’t recognize him or her.

Terry Gross of "Fresh Air"

Terry Gross of “Fresh Air”

It was an interesting idea. But what intrigued me more was Mendelsund’s statement that a book is a “collaboration between author and reader.” The reader fills in the unstated details using his own experience and imagination. I love that! It’s yet another reason why every person at our Mystery Book Club meetings has a different ‘take’ on the book – or why I’m often disappointed with a movie about a book I’ve read. Mendelsund’s remarks left me wondering what people bring to the books I have written. Or even to my blog.

It also made me think about the difference between radio and television. I have no idea what Peter Mendelsund looks like – less, even, than I would have if I were reading a book about him (presuming that the author described him or his surroundings even a little bit.) That was not the case in yesterday’s interview.

I was listening to “Fresh Air” on KMUN – 91.1 Coast Community Radio – and, as I am mostly when I listen to the radio, I was in my car. The only radio we have in the house is in the garage. It also is tuned to 91.1 and Nyel listens to it when he’s working and puttering out there. I’m one of those ‘active listener’ types – I can’t bear to have the radio on as background. And since I seldom have the leisure to just sit down and listen, most of my radio listening is done in the car.

Radio Cast of "One Man's Family"

Radio Cast of “One Man’s Family”

My grandparents had a radio in the nursery – the east room of the house where we now have our TV. I remember that they listened regularly to “One Man’s Family,” a radio soap opera that ran from 1932 to 1959 – for a while as a ½ hour weekly show and later in 15-minute daily installments. I can still hear my grandfather’s chuckle when something that was said tickled him. I’ve always thought they liked listening because the story was set in San Francisco out by the Cliff House, an area familiar to them from their courting days in 1896 and 1897.

This afternoon I’ll be talking about my new book on the radio. At 3:20 I’m scheduled to be on Carol Newman’s “Arts Live and Local” to talk about Ghost Stories of the Long Beach Peninsula. Carol is on vacation so I’m not sure who will be interviewing me. I wonder if people will order my book after hearing me – like I did with Peter Mendelsund’s. I hope so.


  1. Nancy Russell stone

    Sydney: I heard this interview also, and also in the car. Some time spent describing what I heard, or thought I heard to Jack this morning. A new thought thread to follow. Thank you.

  2. Ann Rose'

    Also heard this interview. When I’m reading it is more like watching a movie (if the story is gripping!). I agree that I often don’t picture the characters clearly except those I have seen on a TV series who are VERY clearly “seen”.


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