An artist investigates how we make meaning from words on a page.
In this brilliant amalgam of philosophy, psychology, literary theory and visual art, Knopf associate art director and cover designer Mendelsund inquires about the complex process of reading. “Words are effective not because of what they carry in them,” writes the author, “but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words ‘contain’ meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning….” Writers “tell us stories, and they also tell us how to read these stories,” he writes. “The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much.” Copiously illustrated with maps, doodles, works of art, plates from illustrated books, cartoons, book jackets, facsimiles of texts, photographs, botanical drawings and a few publicity shots of movie stars, the book exemplifies the idea that reading is not a linear process. Even if readers follow consecutive words, they incorporate into reading memories, distractions, predispositions, desires and expectations. “Authors are curators of experience,” writes Mendelsund. “Yet no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers…readers’ brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort.” In 19 brief, zesty chapters, the author considers such topics as the relationship of reading to time, skill, visual acuity, fantasy, synesthesia and belief. “The Part & The Whole” presents lucidly the basic concepts of metaphor, with succinct definitions of metonymy and synecdoche. Throughout the book, Mendelsund draws on various writers, from Wittgenstein to Woolf, Tolstoy to Twain, Melville to Calvino, to support his assertion that “Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend our world.”
Mendelsund amply attains his goal to produce a quirky, fresh and altogether delightful meditation on the miraculous act of reading.