Jessica Helfand

Graphic Designer / United States / Winterhouse

Jessica Helfand’s Book List

I mostly read non-fiction, only a fraction of which is design-related. I tend to get more out of reading non-design-related things (as this list will reveal), I think, because the references and the language tend to stretch both my mind and my vocabulary. (I often tell my students that I get more out of a New Yorker profile than any design book, and it’s true.) . . . View the complete text
9 books
Gail A. Hornstein

Hornstein, a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke, writes a moving book about people who hear voices and the degree to which they suffer, but her book is much more than this. She’s a gifted writer—keenly insightful and profoundly empathetic—qualities that are perfectly suited for material that she deftly weaves into a fascinating chronicle of silent human struggle. (The book’s title comes from an asylum-bound Victorian seamstress who was so traumatized—literally rendered speechless—by her affliction that she sewed a mysterious autobiographical text into the lining of her clothing.)

Christopher Payne
Essay by Oliver Sacks

With exquisite photos by Christopher Payne and a pitch-perfect essay by Oliver Sacks, this is the rare coffee table book that’s worth plunging into, start to finish. Beautifully written, photographed, sequenced, edited, and printed. Without a doubt one of my favorite books.

Susie Linfield

Linfield’s a fearless writer who looks at visual responses to violence as human responses to violence. She’s also not afraid to take on the heavyweights like Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag—which I find refreshing.

Anne Truitt

Truitt was a sculptor and a writer, a gardener and a mother, an artist whose journal reflects the banal bits of Sturm und Drang that plague every working parent in tandem with the persistent philosophical questions that jockey for position for anyone making a life deep in the studio. That she found a way to express these as equal components in her daily life makes for wonderful reading: it’s neither saccharine nor obtuse, but real, and really interesting.

Mark Stevens
Annalyn Swan

Ten years in the making, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Easily the best artist’s biography I have ever read, because it’s as much about the man as about the process, and as much about the time in which he lived and struggled as the work he produced during his lifetime. Brilliant.

Daniel J. Boorstin

A seminal book, surprisingly overlooked by contemporary audiences (especially students), that rings true even though it was written in 1969. Particularly interesting to read with regard to current media practices: what would Boorstin have made of reality TV, I wonder. Or Twitter?

Anne Carson

An accordion-fold amalgamation of memory and longing, this book was assembled as an elegy to the poet’s brother who died too soon. It’s a perfect example of a book that’s at once emotionally riveting—and visually immersive—in every sense of the word.

Beatriz Colomina

Written at a time (1996, after a decade in the making) when “privacy” had nothing to do with Facebook. Colomina is one of those rare theorists who can actually write: she’s architecture’s answer to Isabel Allende—smart, lyrical, insightful.

Janet Malcolm

Malcolm’s investigation of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is really about the relationship between them, making for a fascinating read. She’s as interested in the idea of what it is to write a biography as she is in reporting on theirs—a move that’s at once self-effacing and deeply revealing, offering a kind of transparency that’s rarely evident in investigative journalism.

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