Peter Mendelsund’s article “What We See When We Read” offers a compelling insight to close reading in literature. Some may argue that an author’s writing ability depends on the complexity of the images they are able to project into a reader’s mind; however, “Most authors … provide their fictional characters with more behavioral then physical descriptions.” Therefore, Mendelsund believes that the idea of “seeing” in literature is something that generally does not happen as vividly as we might at first think. Instead, he argues that “You may feel intimately acquainted with a character … but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person.” Thus, “We fill in the gaps.”
In this respect, we learn from what is not there. Our experience with the texts we read depend on the unseen and the unclear. As Mendelsund notes, when trying to obtain a clear picture of a character, “The closer you look, the farther away she gets.” In fact, the critic argues that the physical descriptions that we are given “hardly seem to matter,” and “don’t help us truly picture a person.” Therefore, our idea of a certain character is not necessarily an image. We understand them by their behaviors in relation to other characters, in which they become “a set of rules that determines a particular outcome.” In other words, we understand them, can even to some extent predict their next move, without ever really “seeing” them. Mendelsund argues that “It is precisely what the text does not elucidate that becomes an invitation to our imaginations.” We then learn from what is not on the page.
Extending off of this idea, we can further complicate the notion of “seeing” when we bring the digital humanities into the picture (no pun intended). With DH’s emphasis on the visual and their wide array of digitally enhanced visual tools, they may be able to allow literary readers to finally “see.” The idea of a digital program that sifts through a text, interprets all of the words that are physical descriptors, and translates them into a visual correspondence of those words, one may finally be able to see a character and provide meaning and significance to the physical descriptors that, according to Mendelsund, previously did not matter.
However, in light of Mendelsund’s argument, do we need to see? Arguably, Literature is the only discipline in which we do not need to see in order to learn or understand. In Math, we need charts and numbers. In History, we need maps and artifacts. In Science, we need chemicals and graphs. Literature does not work in this way. We know a character, a house, a landscape, without seeing it; and we think critically in order to do this. Thus, in some ways, the idea of “seeing” can actually hinder the extent of our learning in literary studies. The gaps, arguably tell us more than anything else. If DH would provide us with the visual, would we then be taking away from the uniqueness of the literary discipline where we feel and understand a particular aspect of a text without seeing it? I believe this is the question that we need to consider when incorporating the Digital Humanities into our traditional literary pedagogy. We must be careful when it comes to bringing in new forms of teaching literature and be aware that sometimes less is more.
Excerpt from What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund
Image from same source