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Peter Mendelsund on reading, cover design and his own new books

Q&A with book jacket designer Peter @Mendelsund about inspiration, mistakes, anxiety and his two new books
Book jacket maven Peter Mendelsund talks about his new books, which lets readers see 'behind the curtain'
'Being online ... has only increased my anxiety about what I haven't read,' says Peter Mendelsund

If you had told Peter Mendelsund a dozen years ago that he would one day release two books in tandem about his groundbreaking work in graphic design, he would have assumed you were kidding or that he was dreaming. But this week, the associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf publishes his first monograph of book jacket art, “Cover” (powerHouse: $60) and his illustrated “exploration into the phenomenology of reading,” “What We See When We Read” (Vintage: $16.95 paper).

Back then, Mendelsund was a full-time musician. Born and raised in Cambridge, Mass., he began a career as a concert pianist after studying philosophy and literature at Columbia University. He “stumbled into design” almost by accident, he said by phone last week, after a midcareer “existential crisis.” He realized that working as a full-time musician -- without health insurance and with a new baby daughter, and a second in the works -- wasn’t viable anymore.

Fortunately, through a family friend, Mendelsund got himself an impromptu meeting with book-cover guru and art director extraordinaire Chip Kidd, who, after looking over Mendelsund’s early work and seeing promise, decided to give him a shot as a junior designer. For the last 11 years, he has churned out so many eye-catching covers that he is now one of the best-known book designers in the field.

“Cover” includes around 300 of his book jacket designs, in various stages of completion; more telling, it offers a view into his “process,” including jacket sketches, rejects, editorial illustrations, mock-ups, as well as several essays and meditations by authors he’s worked with (including Ben Marcus, Tom McCarthy, James Gleick and Mark Danielewski).

“WWSWWR,” on the other hand, is a more experimental book, using text and images -- some fragmented on the page -- to help readers visualize, in their minds, the image of characters being described. Mendelsund, throughout this thought-provoking book, helps the lay reader contemplate text in ways you hadn’t thought about previously. 

Why did you decide to write these two books now?

A couple of years back, I had written a post for Jacket Mechanical, my blog, that was sort of the bones of “WWSWWR,” and it had gotten a really nice response from a wide variety of people. My thought at the time wasn’t to expand it; it was more, “Oh, that’s great. I’m really glad that resonated.” Cut to a couple of years further down the line, and powerHouse had asked me to do the monograph, and I had said yes. Just as soon as I had inked that contract, I got this weird panic, like “Oh, God. I’m going to be the pretty-pictures monograph guy,” or “the book jacket guy” -- which I love and I don’t mind being associated with, but it’s only just a part of who I am.

Then the clock started ticking, and I wondered if I could write something in time. I went back through all these old essays of mine (not to mention fledgling book ideas), and I just couldn’t find anything. Then, looking back through my blog, I thought, “Hmm. I think I have more to say about this topic.”

“Cover” is a great real-time visual counterpart to “What We See When We Read.” Were you intentionally going for a Marshall McLuhan-esque presentation on the latter?

The book itself -- the idea stylistically, though not in terms of content -- was, at first, a Marshall McLuhan-inspired presentation: Helvetica, black-and-white pictures, telegraphed messages. I had this whole image in my mind of how it would look. Also, because the monograph of my book-jacket work was going to be a $60 book and full color, I was thinking in terms of complementary books that would be affordable and accessible. One would be big and expensive and colorful; the other would be small, black and white and for the everyman.

You stumbled into design, and had to learn quickly, on the job; as a result, you often had to ask your colleagues about basic things, like, What’s a pantone chip? Do you think you would have found your way here had you gone to art school instead?

The truth is when you go to school to learn something, you’re on a dedicated trajectory. So that puts a certain kind of burden on you to succeed in that particular trajectory. One of the wonderful things about having sidestepped into design is that there was never any pressure for me to succeed. ... It’s not something I spent money to learn how to do. So I still kind of feel like I’m dabbling, and I think what’s great about that is you can maintain a certain kind of beginner’s mind when you’re working, which obviously, I think, makes for better work. You’re just fresher because you don’t have the anxiety of influence. There’s nothing really at stake.

In “Cover,” you give a shout-out to your father, who was a painter. Do you think this visual talent of yours was latent, just hadn’t been tapped until you had that a-ha moment about design?

I’m still convinced I’m the least visual member of my family. When I was growing up, my mom was a docent at the Met. My sister is a very talented painter. My dad was an architect-turned-fine-artist. I was the music guy. ... I think a lot of it was through osmosis. Yet I still feel somewhat unworthy in the family as a visual guy.

How much time do you spend on average reading versus designing or art directing?

I’ve always read voraciously since I was a child, no matter what I’ve called myself professionally. ... If I have any predominant anxiety in my life, it’s that I don’t have enough time to read in any given minute. I was just saying five minutes ago to a friend of mine -- we were talking about something that I was reading this morning and all the follow-up reading I needed to do to properly understand the thing that I was reading and that sort of crazy, branching, forking tree of reading possibilities that I feel like is always stretching out in front of me. You can’t read it all, but I really want to.

Part of the idea of including visuals in “WWSWWR” was to leaven some of the seriousness of the writing. Where it gets dense, I was hoping the cartoonishness of the visuals are a way out. It serves as a foil -- I’m hoping, anyway. I was writing sentences, where I was like, “Oh God, Peter. You’re so pretentious. No one is going to want to plow through this.” Hopefully the illustrations are a way in.

There are things I learned that I didn’t know. I knew Kafka, for instance, made these cryptic line drawings that almost perfectly visualize his stark prose (and wicked sense of humor), but I had no idea how many other authors also had some visual talent. You dug up quite a bit, no?

Dostoevsky was really cool. That was a discovery for me, that he had been sketching characters for his books. ... I live near the Columbia University library, so I spend a lot of time in there. Some of the stuff I did online. That stuff is out there. I have a beautiful book, a visual book of Kafka’s world that has those sketches in it. It’s a German publication, and it has all these photographs of Kafka and the people around him (where he lived in Prague), and it also includes facsimiles of his writing and sketches -- that’s where that came from.

Has spending more time online helped or hurt your ability to read, write and design?

I found being online -- and specifically on Twitter -- has only increased my anxiety about what I haven’t read, because of the recommendations that come through the transom. There’s so much good material out there.

It was true when I was trying to write these books, my time was squeezed at that moment. I had two jobs here: One at Pantheon, one at Knopf; I have two kids; I have freelance work; and I still try to play the piano. I just had no time, and one of the things I learned is that there are these little interstitial moments where things can get done, and I find myself living for them. For instance, I wrote a ton on the subway but those are also the times in which I read. I’m reading when I’m walking down the street or I’m reading when I’m on the subway or I’m reading in those stolen moments because that’s the time you have.

When putting together “Cover,” was it hard to sort out what to include?

Yeah, that was actually really tough, and it was true in terms of the writing as well as the pictures of the book jackets. Again, all of this was put together so quickly, and part of it was just who can I get to write something great whose book cover I did that I liked who could do something within the crazy deadline? A lot of the pieces that were included were included for those reasons. But there are probably hundreds of jackets that I’ve done that aren’t in there ...

The real thing I wanted from this book was the jackets to be the actual size they were designed for; which is why the trim size is the size of the books I designed. I wanted you to feel like you could reach out and touch the thing, but it limited the amount of covers I could use, and on top of that, there were certain things I thought it was important to include thematically that ruled out including other things.

For instance, I wanted to include a lot of killed covers. Covers that showed some sense of “process,” but were for whatever reasons abandoned. I wanted there to be something blog-like about it, that it related a little bit to the blog that I have, that it felt a little bit casual in that way, that you could sort of see behind the curtain a little bit.

Was it hard to present in words but also by example your process visually?

It’s very frightening. I think that most designers like to uphold the myth that they sit down, inspiration strikes, they knock the thing out, and then they move on to the next. That’s like a kind of mythology in all the arts, actually -- that the muse visits; the thing is made fully formed in your head, and then you translate it into your medium and then it’s done, feather in my cap. It’s obviously so much messier than that. It’s embarrassing.

I did a talk recently at Pentagram where I showed comps that didn’t make it to press. ... It was terrifying, but I think it was really fun for everyone because you don’t usually get to see this stuff because designers (and writers) are typically ashamed. If you want to pretend that the process is something that it’s not -- fine. Occasionally, it can be that mythical process, where -- ding, light bulb -- things happen, but more often than not, it’s not like that at all.

People assume the process is really about coming ever closer to this ideal book cover, and then you find the ideal book cover, you’re done; whereas, the more I do this, the more it turns out that what it’s really about is making all the possible book covers and choosing one kind of arbitrarily. ... These things get chosen for any number of reasons, but it’s not that they represent the true heart of the book. There is no such cover.

Gabel is a writer, editor and small publisher living in Los Angeles. 

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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