Reviewed by Harriet Devine
Every choice of color, every typographical decision, each division of space and every pictorial graft—each step, a step closer to the concretization of the book and thus its impoverishment. It is my job to drag the text, the author’s work, perfect in its disembodiment, into awful specificity. At which point, no matter how well I’ve done my work—no matter how pretty the cover is—I feel a sense of loss.
Books covers have become an important theme in this issue of SNB. The editors have had a chat about them, there’s a competition about them, and Rebecca has reviewed What We See When We Read by the great American cover designer Peter Mendelsund, which, though actually about reading, is of course informed by the fact that he reads as a designer – or perhaps it’s truer to say, designs as a reader. His job, as he says in the quotation above, is to concretize the text, something he can’t help feeling as a diminishment. But looking at this glorious book, published at the same time and containing many beautiful reproductions of his covers, it’s hard to see them as in any way impoverished.
If you compare Mendelsund’s covers with what we see around us when we go into a bookshop, and I suppose this is true anywhere in the world, your average run-of-the-mill covers look pretty awful or at best fade into complete insignificance. Of course you could argue that many of the designs that appear in this book were done for classic or literary works rather than for the kind of fiction that most people probably read, but he has also designed plenty of genre fiction – his covers for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy have become iconic, at least in America. Some of his covers are highly abstract, like the series he did for Kafka’s novels, each one brilliantly coloured with a representation of an eye, or the geometric cut-outs on The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. But Mendelsund can do representational too, like his Dr Zhivago cover which incorporates a Russian poster, or the cover for Parrot and Olivier in America, showing an 18th-century portrait partly covered by an envelope.
In addition to the delicious illustrations, which would be an excuse for anyone to buy the book on their own, there is also a series of essays by Mendelsund himself and by people who admire or have commissioned his work. There are fascinating insights, such as that of Tom McCarthy who describes in his introduction the way Mendelsund works, reading a novel against the grain, counter-intuitively so as not to be distracted by the plot. As a result:
Mendelsund’s covers don’t show you what’s there, even a hidden what’s-there; they show you what isn’t there—and conspicuously so: the kind of not-there that, as soon as it’s shown to you, you instantly recognize, darkly familiar as a murder weapon.
Mendelsund comments on his own designs, explaining why he chose certain images or themes – vivid colours for an edition of James Joyce’s works, a series of everyday objects for those of Michel Foucault, those eyes for Kafka. There’s a fascinating discussion of the difficulty of finding the right cover for Lolita, and here, as elsewhere in the book, there are illustrations of the rejected covers (helpfully marked with a red cross) as well the final version.
Authors get a look in too, so we hear from people like Jo Nesbo, who says Mendelsund’s are the only international covers he really likes, people who are really fussy and reject lots of designs before they finally approve something, and people who are downright confused:
What kind of cover did I want? I had no idea. I never do. And if I did, I wouldn’t know how to express it. Can you sum up a book in a single image? Is the jacket meant to encapsulate the book or interpret it; to convey its essence, or just to give the buyer a hint of whether it’s sexy or serious?
and people who are satisfied and delighted:
I think a great designer like Peter Mendelsund is like a photographer, armed not with a literal camera but with a conceptual one. And with that conceptual camera he reframed the contents of my book for me, found the one best angle to shoot them from, and with a single, exacting shot he captured all thirteen stories.
There’s also an important biographical essay by Mendelsund himself, in which he describes the unusual trajectory of his career, which, he says, people like to hear in the condensed version: I was a pianist; then I taught myself design from scratch over a ridiculously short period of time; then Chip Kidd hired me at Knopf. Short though it is, this really does sum up his extraordinary career. A classically trained pianist, he found the pressure of keeping that going with a small family to support simply impossible, and after an (entertainingly reproduced) brainstorming session with his wife, he decided that design was the road to go down, and really did teach himself how to do it. How hard could it be? For most people, probably, pretty hard. But Peter Mendelsund is clearly an exceptionally talented man, and this book is a joy for the way it demonstrates just how brilliant he is. Here, from Nicholas Fox Weber, is one of the many tributes that appear in the book. Enough said.
Peter Mendelsund is an extraordinary designer not only because he has a splendid graphic sense, an eye for balance and color and rhythm, that put him in the top tier. It is also because he is a reader, a person of deep understanding and keen intellect for whom books are the key to knowledge.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and would love to have been a graphic designer.
Peter Mendelsund, Cover (Power House Books, New York: 2014). 978-1576876671, 200 pp., hardback.