Peter Mendelsund on 'What We See When We Read'

Peter Mendelsund, author of Peter Mendelsund, author of "What We See When We Read" (Vintage, August 2014). Photo Credit: George Baier IV

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Where do our mental images come from when we're reading a book? Are they directed by the author, or do we substitute faces and landscapes from our own experience?

Book jacket designer and art director Peter Mendelsund takes on these complex questions in the text and playful imagery of "What We See When We Read" (Vintage, $16.95 paper), using his background as a concert pianist, iconic designer and devoted reader to illuminate the investigation. A monograph of his design work, "Cover" (powerHouse, $60) also is out this month.

In a recent telephone call, Mendelsund discussed his surprising take on the roles of reader and writer and why learning a Chopin etude is like creating a book cover.

Your book untangles the different ways we read. For example, the way my Anna Karenina looks completely different from your Anna Karenina, because we ship in our own experiences and memories to fill in Tolstoy's blanks. Your cover designs turn abstract book ideas into concrete images every day. Is this where the idea for the book came from?

Obviously, I have a lot of practical occasion to deal in this, but I'd never really unpacked until I had lunch with a very good friend two years ago. We talked about how people's imaginations differ from one another when reading books, and I just found this fascinating. For example, he grew up in Albany and had an aunt he thought of as the embodiment of old-world sophistication, and whenever he would read a novel for school, it always took place at her house. It wasn't until he was in college that he stopped doing it -- he was so tired of visiting his aunt's house! This just sparked a train of other thoughts inside me, and I quickly fired off a blog post. The response was great and that became the basis for the book.

You've designed covers for authors including Franz Kafka, Stieg Larsson and Albert Camus. What was it like to design the cover for your own book?

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Pure agony. I tried hundreds of things. And nothing was good enough! Part of the problem is I'm talking about something ineffable in the book. No one knows what we see when we read because no one knows our mental content. I found it difficult to represent really metaphysical subjects with a visual emblem. Hopefully the keyhole [image] answers the problem of showing what you cannot show.

You work as a book jacket designer, but your book is firmly rooted in your perspective as reader and musician. How do these identities overlap?

My business card says designer and art director, but I only switched to becoming a designer 12 years ago. I've been playing the piano since I was 4, and that remains the main component of my life -- I still play the piano a couple hours every day, and I just made a recording a couple of weeks ago.

So how does one go from classical pianist to jacket designer?

My music has made me a better designer. When learning something really difficult, like a Chopin etude, you're not going to learn the piece by learning every note. Instead, you learn it by seeing patterns. This arpeggio goes up, then it goes down -- it modulates. Structurally, if you are building a cover, something is happening in this corner and so the other corner might be a great place for some space. It's like a sonata -- at some point, the ear and eye need a break.

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Did examining the way we read change the way you read?

It changed everything for me in an annoying way -- reading is all about immersion, and you've got to lose yourself in it, but nothing else ruins the experience like the kind of meta-awareness I was writing about. I've had to retrain myself to not think about reading when I am reading.

One of the provocative ideas in your book is that of co-creation -- that the reader and writer are working together to build a story.

Right. There's the intention of the writer and then there's the intention of the reader. Sometimes they are in sync, sometimes not. We are using the writer's work as a springboard to enter onto empathetic ground; hopefully we can get out of our own heads and share something with the author. Writers can invoke things in other people -- it's magic!

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