Peter Mendelsund

Graphic Designer / United States / Alfred A. Knopf Books, Pantheon Books, Vertical Press

Peter Mendelsund’s Book List

I don’t believe I’ve ever read a “design book” in my entire life. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a single book devoted solely to the visual arts or architecture either, unless you include the occasional biography of a painter, or an essay collection here and there that might have happened to include some piece or other on design or the visual arts.) Furthermore, I have no formal training as a designer so I wasn’t asked to read these books in an academic program either. All of which is to say: I am completely virginal when it comes to the literature of art and design.

How I became a designer is anyone’s guess, but it certainly had nothing to do with reading design books. The seminal books, for me, were books that 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. These non-design books are the books that made me a better designer.

8 books
Matsuo Basho
Jane Reichhold Translator

Lesson(s) learned: Less is more; the world in a grain of sand; etc., etc.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Lesson(s) learned: Life can be messy and beautiful in equal measure. (Design can be, too.)

Crockett Johnson

One of the ancillary benefits of having children is that it offers one an excuse to reread one’s favorite children’s books. Many times. I came back to Harold and the Purple Crayon when my first daughter was born and have subsequently read it out loud to both my children approximately one billion times. And the book holds up. It is a tale of a boy who makes his own adventure, and his own way through this adventure, with nothing more than the eponymous crayon. It was my first and most profound lesson in world-building. Lesson(s) learned: All you need is a crayon.

Romain Rolland
Gilbert Cannan Translator

A sprawling novel that won the Nobel Prize in 1915 and was the most massively popular work of its time. Now largely forgotten (perhaps out of print even?). I read Jean Christophe in tenth grade at the urging of my grandfather Henoch Mendelsund. The book is based, roughly, on the life of Beethoven, and 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.

Vladimir Nabokov

Lesson(s) learned: Humor and profundity can coexist. And: Style matters.

Virginia Woolf

The book that, of all the books I’ve read, comes the closest to accurately reflecting this slippery world of ours. It is the book that feels, when one is reading it, the most like what it feels to be alive. Lesson(s) learned: Hold a mirror up to life.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
David Pears Translator
Brian McGuinness Translator

Lesson(s) learned: Think things through. Be thorough, methodical, meticulous. When you write, speak, or commit an image to paper, know what you mean.

James Joyce

Ulysses is a novel that is intensely unified despite its being comprised of every stylistic and rhetorical literary and narrative device known to man. Lesson(s) learned: An artist can be a shape-shifter while retaining a strong identity and sense of integrity.

comments powered by Disqus