Peter Mendelsund explores the relationship between the reader and the text in his essay “What We See When We Read.” Noting the gaps in our mental pictures of characters, Mendelsund explains that characters really become more like a set of rules: “Character description is a kind of circumscription. A character’s features help to delineate their boundaries—but these features don’t help us truly picture a person” (7-8). In revealing the truly vague descriptions of characters, as well as the ways readers might build their own images, Mendelsund’s essay illustrates a distinct transaction taking place between reader and writer, between the reader and the text.

As Kate Imwalle notes, “we learn from what is not there” (1). Readers bring to the text images and experiences from the outside world, often unintentionally. (At one point Mendelsund explains how he had once unwittingly imagined a character to have his coworker’s face, failing to realize at first.) Ultimately, these images and portrayals we create from fiction are often unstable and vague, and, in reality, readers rely much less on physical descriptors than it might seem. For example, Anna Karenina is only described in parts, such as slender hands and thick lashes, leaving the rest a composite of imagination. As Mendelsund notes, “authors can’t tell us everything” (3). Mendelsund concludes “What We See When We Read” by demonstrating the ways literature relies less on the visual, for most readers, and more on the “inner ear.”

Although Mendelsund’s focus is on what we “see” when reading, his article also demonstrates the significant role of the reader in the literary process. Describing the interaction between reader and text as a “poem,” Louise M. Rosenblatt asserts that, “The poem, then, must be thought of as an event in time…It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experiences and his present personality” (12). For Rosenblatt, a text is incomplete until a reader interacts with it, plays with it, and contributes to it. Anna Karenina is a catalyst or mediator, for Rosenblatt, and becomes the locus of exchange for author and reader.

This is a unique way of conceptualizing a text, with the reader as an active and creative participant who is constantly building.  Digital Humanities share a similar bent, casting DHers as creators who “screw around,” who are always making something. In this way, DH projects become an extension of the transactional process of reading, turning what we see when we read into concrete interactions. In many ways, literary studies is the perfect arena for Digital Humanities, as literary studies is already a place where individuals are constantly building, albeit in their minds.


Works Cited

Mendelsund, Peter. “What We See When We Read.” The Paris Review, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.

Rosenblatt, Lousie M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.