In a way, this book is an autobiography of someone brought up with a very particular relation to books, in a religious family, in an English literary tradition, who on becoming an adult, for private personal reasons, set himself literary goals that were gradually revealed as spurious. Also, it’s about a person from the literary center—English, London— who has spent more than thirty years in another country, Italy, that is out of the literary mainstream. And a writer who also, by chance, became a translator and went on to teach translation. My life has been a long process of awakening to the reality, the changing reality, of the contemporary book world, which is a million miles from the naïve vision I had when I started writing books at twenty-two. Since it is in the publishers’ interests, and indeed the University’s, to sustain a false picture of what the book world is like and what the contemporary experience of books amounts to, my articles were a response to this, and an attempt to get my own head straight about what I’m really doing and the environment I move in. One is seeking at last to be unblinkered about it all.
One of the pleasures of his book is his honesty and perplexity at the discovery that every account he offers of the process of visualization very quickly falls apart under pressure. We do not really “see” characters such as Anna Karenina or Captain Ahab, he concludes, or indeed the places described in novels, and insofar as we do perhaps see or glimpse them, what we are seeing is something we have imagined, not what the author saw. Even when there are illustrations, as in many nineteenth-century novels, they only impose their view of the characters very briefly. A couple of pages later they have become as fluid and vague as so much of visual memory. At one point Mendelsund posits the idea that perhaps we read in order not to be oppressed by the visual, in order not to see.
(Pictured above is the cover of the UK edition, published by Harvill Secker in December last year, of Where I’m Reading From designed by James Paul Jones. The US edition, which has a more utilitarian cover, was just published by New York Review of Books)