A Volitional Flick Away

Excerpt from What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund:

When I read, I withdraw from the phenomenal world. I turn my attention "inward." Paradoxically, I turn outward toward the book I am holding, and, as if the book were a mirror, I feel as though I am looking inward.

(This idea of a mirror is an analogy for the act of reading. And I can imagine other analogies as well: For instance, I can imagine reading is like withdrawing to a cloister behind my eyes – an open court, hemmed by a covered path; a fountain, a tree – a place of contemplation. But this is not what I see when I read. I don't see a cloister, or a mirror. What I see when I'm reading is not the act of reading itself, nor do I see analogies for the act of reading.)

When I read, my retirement  from the phenomenal world is undertaken too quickly to notice. The world in front of me and the world "inside" me are not merely adjacent, but overlapping; superimposed. A book feels like the intersection between these two domains – or like a conduit; a bridge; a passage between them. 

When my eyes are closed, the seen (the aurora borealis of my inner lids) and the imagined (say, an image of Anna Karenina) are never more than a volitional flick away from each other. Reading is like this closed-eye world – and reading takes place behind lids of a sort. An open book acts as a blind – its boards and pages shut out the world's clamorous stimuli and encourage the imagination.


If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ”

But what does Anna Karenina look like? You may feel intimately acquainted with a character (people like to say, of a brilliantly described character, It’s like I know her), but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.

Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavioral than physical description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Anna: her hair, her weight—these are only facets, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color … What does Anna look like? We don’t know—our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.

Visualizing seems to require will …

… though at times it may also seem as though an image of a sort appears to us unbidden.

(It is tenuous, and withdraws shyly upon scrutiny.)


Mendelsund, P. (2014). What we see when we read: A phenomenology ; with illustrations. New York: Vintage Books. (library)