Book List of the Week

Lessons Learned: Peter Mendelsund’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter March 19, 2013
Peter Mendelsund

Graphic designer Peter Mendelsund: Alfred A. Knopf Books, Pantheon Books, Vertical Press (New York)

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“How I became a designer is anyone’s guess, but it certainly had nothing to do with reading design books,” says Peter Mendelsund, the book designer who created 11 of the winning book covers for the “50 Books/50 Covers” competition of 2011 and whose covers for Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy have been described by the Wall Street Journal as being “the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction.” The books that have been seminal for him, Mendelsund tells Designers & Books, “are related to design only inasmuch as all of life is related to design—and literature and philosophy books have taught me about life: the forms life takes, the ways in which those forms of life can be organized, disorganized, and reorganized.”

Cover of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, designed by Peter Mendelsund, 2012 (Alfred A. Knopf)

All of the books on his list, Mendelsund tells us, have taught him something, and in his comments for each title he highlights the “lesson(s) learned.” So, for example, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brother Karamazov, the lesson absorbed is, “Life can be messy and beautiful in equal measure. (Design can be, too.)” From Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, we get, “Think things through. Be thorough, methodical, meticulous. When you write, speak, or commit an image to paper, know what you mean.” From Ulysses (one of the most frequently chosen books of fiction on Designers & Books), we learn that “an artist can be a shape-shifter while retaining a strong identity and sense of integrity.” And from Crockett Johnson's beloved children's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, “my first and most profound lesson in world-building,” Mendelsund realizes that “all you need is a crayon.”

The designer, who describes himself as a “recovering classical pianist,” also includes on his book list Romain Rolland's 1915 Nobel Prize-winning novel Jean Christoph (given to Mendelsund by his grandfather), roughly based on the life of Beethoven. “It was my first glimpse at the mythology of the artist-as-superhero. Lesson(s) learned: Nobody is as cool as he or she who makes things.”

Cover of The Castle by Franz Kafka, designed by Peter Mendelsund for a series of works by Kafka with covers by Mendelsund (2011, Schocken Books). The series was named a winner in the 2011 50 Books/50 Covers competition.


In the notes he sent us about his book list, Mendelsund suggested including a collection of musical works, Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, a two-part collection of solo pieces for keyboard known together as Books I and II. “You may think it is not, strictly speaking, a book, but you’d be wrong,” he said. “It is to be read, as well as played. The Well-Tempered Clavier is the summation of mankind’s work on this planet. Lesson(s) learned: Not every artist is created equal. Once in a millennium, (or perhaps, even: once only) a person will be born who is prodigiously, exponentially better than the rest of us. One cannot learn from this artist, as his output is so complex and so inalterably flawless as to be inimitable. All one can do in the face of perfection is sit back and laugh, or cry, or marvel.”

His close connection to the different elements that go into making a book has led Mendelsund to think about doing a book of his own. We'll be posting details on Designers & Books. Update, July 29, 2014: Two books by Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read (Vintage/Random House) and Cover (powerHouse Books), will be released August 5, 2014.



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See description of panel discussion “Cover Stories: A Conversation about Book Cover Design,” at Designers & Books Fair 2012, in which Peter Mendelsund participated.

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