Covering Reading: A Conversation with Book Cover Designer Peter Mendelsund

By Steve Kroeter September 2, 2014

Award-winning book cover designer and Alfred A. Knopf associate art director Peter Mendelsund talks with Designers & Books about not one but two books he’s written recently, both published this August: Cover (powerHouse Books), featuring a decade of his book cover designs, and What We See When We Read (Vintage Books), a meditation on how we visualize the words of writers.

Book cover designed by Peter Mendelsund showing the silhouette of his Mason and Hamlin grand piano. From Cover.

Designers & Books: Your two professional identities are as a “recovering” pianist and a book cover designer. What do these two things have in common?
Peter Mendelsund: Both professions require a certain amount of solitude and patience. And they both are, on some levels, re-creative, interpretational forms, rather than mediums which require you to make something out of whole cloth. With book cover design you are reenacting, or recapitulating a text. And with classical piano performance you are doing much the same. In both cases your work is subservient to the writer’s. Or should be.

But the similarities really end there. I can’t think of two more different activities—and I relish how different they are. After I practice the piano, I’m really ready to engage a different part of my psyche, to utilize different sensory organs. At this point design kind of cleans the mental palette for me. And music performs a similar function for me after a long day of designing.

Cover of Cover, by Peter Mendelsund, 2014 (powerHouse Books)

D&B: What happens when you are asked to design a cover for a book that you dislike?
PM: It’s very rare that I’ll dislike a book, in its entirety, purely on aesthetic grounds. I always find something to like in any given book. I read all kinds of books in every possible genre, and derive all kinds of pleasures from the disparate flavors of these various reading experiences. Now, if I find the subject matter of the book, its politics, say, utterly abhorrent, I’ll politely decline to work on it. I’ve done this several times.

D&B: What’s the best cover you’ve ever designed that got killed?
PM: I can’t answer this question without angering or upsetting another art director (Though I wish I could. Answer the question that is.) I have certain favorite cover comps which I was certain, at the time, were perfect for the books they were jacketing—that expressed something totally unique and powerful, and spoke directly to the author’s project—but others disagreed. So it goes. This happens all the time. It bothers me less over time. It’s not, necessarily, that you learn to accept the fact that good ideas get killed, but rather, you learn that you always, always, have other good ideas. There is no end to good ideas. And if you have this faith in the constant replenishment of creativity, you find you don’t sweat the killed covers as much.

Rejected covers (above) for Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and (below) final cover. From Cover.

D&B: If budget was never a question, what impact would that have on your cover work?
PM: Constraints are good to have. Some of my favorite cover designs of all time were one color jobs. I would worry, if I had no budgetary constraints, that all my jackets would be effect-driven and gimmicky. That being said I’ve always wanted to do a scratch-and-sniff cover. Or make a cover out of the skin of a baby snow leopard. Only kidding.

Cover of Ulysses from series of covers of works by James Joyce. From Cover 

Final cover for Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber. From Cover

“The book as building.” From Cover

“The only book cover I’ve ever designed with moving parts.” The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea: Poems by Mark Haddon. From Cover.

D&B: When you’re doing a cover, how do you know when to stop—that you’ve got what you need?
PM: I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s some kind of innate sense that nothing more can be done; that there’s nothing more to add, or nothing more to subtract. I suppose what makes someone a cover designer is the instinctive understanding of what a cover should look like, and so we should know, in some intuitive way, when that moment has been achieved. But it’s a mystery!

Cover of What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund, 2014 (Vintage Books)

D&B: As a way of relating the two books you’ve written, when you are reading a book for which you are designing the cover, how does your own process of seeing the book relate to your process of designing the cover?
PM: I never put “something I had seen while I was reading” on the cover of a book. This is mostly because I don’t think I do a lot of “seeing,” in the optical sense, while I am reading (even when I am reading specifically in order to design a cover). Rather, I think conceptually while I am reading, and it’s that conceptual engagement with the text that leads to the cover. I’m reading with an eye towards narrative importance, thematic importance, metaphoric weight, etc. When I’m making a cover after I’ve read a book, those images I am manipulating are brand new to me—they don’t emerge while I am reading.

D&B: When you’re reading an eBook, do you see the book differently than when you are reading a paper book?
PM: About three quarters of my reading is now done electronically. And, yes, this changes the way I see the book itself, as an artifact, but it doesn’t seem to change the way I imagine. Text, if it’s doing its job, is transparent. I see past it, whether it is ink or pixels.

D&B: Some of the books you discuss in What We See When We Read are books that have been translated from their original language. What are your thoughts about the way a book is “seen” by readers reading in the original language versus reading in translation?
PM: Each book—even one in your own language—has to be translated by the reader. We personalize our readings in our native tongues just as much as we do those in foreign ones. This idea of reading “the author’s true text” is a misconception. There is no true text. All text is mediated.

From What We See When We Read

D&B: How did you acquire your Mason and Hamlin grand piano? What do you like most about it? When you are sitting at it playing and the playing is going well, is there any similarity to the feeling you get when you are in your studio designing a cover and the designing is going well?

Peter Mendelsund, author of Cover (powerHouse Books) and What We See When We Read (Vintage Books/Knopf), at his Mason and Hamlin grand piano

PM: My parents bought me my Mason when I was about nine—I had played on an upright up until then. I believe it cost about two thousand dollars back then. It was made in the year 1900, and, aside from being a very pretty instrument, is the object that means the most to me in the world. There is no single thing I love more—that is more invested with my personal history, more freighted with association and emotion than this piano.

As to the second question: performing well at anything is pleasurable, but nothing feels nearly so great as the feeling of playing music and being totally immersed. It is the greatest feeling possible. It’s a cliché, but it is a kind of communion.

D&B: Books obviously play an unusually important role in your life. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from the reading (or seeing while reading) you’ve done?
PM: Reading, I’ve found, makes one more compassionate. It compels one to enter other minds and hearts, which should in turn lead to some kind of empathetic maturation in the reader. Reading is, if nothing else, if shorn of its aesthetic wonders, a method for learning about the lives of others, for inhabiting these lives. So hopefully my reading has made me a kinder person.

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