What we see when we read
A composite sketch of Anna Karenina, based entirely on descriptions from the novel.

How do you picture Anna Karenina? Is she tall and stately? Rounded and pale? Does she remind you of your mother? Keira Knightley? Or is she an abstract amalgam--a mess of brown curls and feathered hats, with a face that’s always two steps out of reach?

In his new book, What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund (an associate art director at Knopf, best known for his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo design) explores the process of visualizing stories as we’re reading them. Is it a matter of accurately picking up on an author’s cues? Or does a good book prompt us to be our own illustrator?

Take the issue of Anna. Mendelsund actually got a police sketch artist computer program to render her portrait, based entirely on descriptions from the book. The drawing is pleasing, but is it the real Anna? (No, Mendelsund claims, but you’ll have to read his book to find out why.)

Mendelsund interweaves his text with introspective illustrations--say, his childhood elementary school that stands as a placeholder for all elementary schools in his reading pursuits--and the result is a book that’s as lovely as it is thoughtful.

It just might change the way you read, we mean see, the world.

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