reading without seeing -- 1/20/22

Today's selection -- from What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund. We read by collecting a series of fragmented descriptions and forming a "picture" in our mind. What happens when we lose our place? How do we absorb what we can't remember we have read?:

"Not long ago, I was reading a book when, suddenly, I jumped to attention -- startled and embarrassed, like a tired driver drifting out of his lane. I had become con­scious of the fact that I had no idea who a particular character I had been reading about was.

"Had I not been reading carefully enough?

"When a story reaches a confusing juncture -- where there is a dislocation in time or space; when an un­known character appears in the text; if we begin to sense that we are ignorant of some seemingly crucial narrative fact -- we are then faced with a dilemma: to go backwards and revisit earlier passages, or to press on.
"(We make choices about how we choose to imagine, and we make choices about how we choose to read.)
"In these cases, we may decide that we missed some key element, an event or explanation that came earlier in the book. And then we tum back the pages in an attempt to find the components of the story we've been missing. Other times, however, it seems better to just continue reading, bracketing our ignorance and suspending resolution. We may wonder if it is the author's intention to reveal things slowly, and then we will be patient as we tell ourselves a good reader should be. Or if we have indeed accidentally glossed over some crucial fact earlier in the book, we will decide that it is more important to continue, to remain in the moment, not to take ourselves out of the dramatic flow of the story. We decide that drama takes precedence over information. Especially if we deem that information unimportant.

"It requires so little to plow ahead.

"Characters can move through empty, undifferentiated spaces; rooms may contain unnamed, faceless, mean­ingless characters; seemingly purposeless subplots are endured as if read in a foreign language ... we read on until we are, once again, oriented. 

"We can read without seeing, and we can also read without understanding. What happens to our imaginations when we have lost the narrative thread in a story, when we breeze past words we don't understand, when we read words without knowing to what they refer?

"When I am reading a sentence in a book that references something unknown to me (as when I have inadvertently skipped a passage), I feel as though I am reading a syntactically correct but semantically meaningless 'nonsense' sentence. The sentence feels meaningful -- it has the flavor of meaning -- and the structure of its grammar thrusts me forward through the sentence and on to the next, though in truth I understand (and picture) nothing.

"How much of our reading takes place in such a suspension of meaning? How much time do we spend reading seemingly meaningful sentences without knowing their referents? How much of our reading takes place in such a void -- propelled by mere syntax?

"All good books are, at heart, mysteries. (Authors withhold information. This information may be revealed over time. This is one reason we bother to tum a book's pages.) A book may be a literal mystery (Murder on the Orient Express, The Brothers Karamazov) or metaphysical mystery (Moby-Dick, Doctor Faustus) or a mystery of a purely architectonic kind -- a chronotopic mystery (Emma, The Odyssey).

"These mysteries are narrative mysteries -- but books also defend their pictorial secrets ...

"'Call me Ishmael ... '
"This statement invites more questions than it answers. We desire that Ishmael's face be, like the identity of one of Agatha Christie's murderers:


"Writers of fiction tell us stories, and they also tell us how to read these stories. From a novel I assemble a series of rules -- not only a methodology for reading (a suggested hermeneutics) but a manner of cognition, all of which carries me through the text (and sometimes lingers after a book ends). The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much."



Peter Mendelsund


What We See When We Read


Vintage Books, a Division of Random House LLC


Copyright 2014 by Peter Mendelsund


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