Peter Mendelsund estimates he's designed "somewhere between 600 and 1,000 book covers," ranging from Crime and Punishment to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But the self-taught, sought-after designer says he spends a lot of time reading, too.
"It's always surprising to people when they come to my office or they walk by my door and they see me with my feet kicked up with a manuscript," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "But I read constantly from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep."
Now Mendelsund has designed the covers for two new books of his own. Cover is a collection of hundreds of his book covers, including many that were rejected, along with commentaries on his technique. What We See When We Read is about how words give rise to images in our minds.
"When I'm reading, I'm marking up the text and I'm trying to be very alert for anything in that text that has structural importance or a particular kind of emotional weight," he says. "I'm trying to establish what the affect of the book is, in general, because mood is very important on a book jacket. ... You're just trying to translate the feeling of what it's like to read that book."
On what a book jacket is and does
I think there are two primary jobs that a jacket has to do: It has to represent a text and it has to sell it. In a way, a book jacket ... is sort of like a title that an author comes up with. It's one thing that has to speak to a big aggregate thing, which is the book itself. And it has to be compelling in some way such that you're interested enough to pick it up — and perhaps buy it. ... It's like a billboard or an advertisement or a movie trailer or a teaser. ...
I think of a book jacket as being sort of like a visual reminder of the book, but ... it's also a souvenir of the reading experience. Reading takes place in this nebulous kind of realm, and in a way, the jacket is part of the thing that you bring back from that experience. It's the thing that you hold on to.
On why "dead authors get the best book jackets"
It is true, in fact, that it's always fun to work on the great historical, canonical literary classics, because there's one less person who has to approve what I do — that is the author, who doesn't get a say because they are dead. ... There's a certain kind of freedom that comes from that, that engenders designs that are unencumbered and fun and exciting in a way that working for a living author — those designs tend to be a little more complex.
I really feel the onus of that living author. They've worked possibly for years on this book, mostly in solitude. And then they come to me with this manuscript and it's a very tender moment. And writers are sensitive people in general, so I take that responsibility very seriously.
But that relationship between you and the author and the guilt that one feels if one possibly gets it wrong — you tense up sometimes with that responsibility.
On his cover-designing process
I mark up the manuscript as I'm going — anytime there's something I think could be potentially that symbol, that thing that could represent the text as a whole — and then I look back over those notes and I start sketching from them. ...
When I have a sketch that seems like it could be compelling in some way, I render it more fully. I make a collage or I'll take a photo or I'll work on the computer or I'll set the typography. There's a lot of trial and error in it ... but while I'm designing, I'm then looking at the things that I've made to see if they feel consonant with the way that I felt when I was reading. That's really the moment that you know if you've made a book jacket that works. ...
I make the design. I print it out. I wrap it around a book. I leave it on my bookshelf face out, and then I willfully try to forget about it. One of the things about making anything is in order to discern whether what you've made is working or not, you need some objectivity. You need some distance from it.
On "what we see when we read"
I'm not a neuroscientist; I'm not a professional philosopher; I'm not that qualified to talk about mental content and what it is and why it comes to be. How I am qualified is that I read books all the time and try to visualize their contents. I have this working knowledge of the imagination in that sense. ...
When I was thinking of Anna Karenina, I wasn't quite imagining a person. Or if I was, I was imagining a very specific person that I knew — say, a relative. Often it would be a combination of two people that I knew. Sometimes I wouldn't be imagining anything for her — I would have a placeholder in my mind that said "Anna Karenina."
When we describe the reading experience, we describe this metaphor of watching a film — that we see the author's works projected in our minds and we watch that image passively. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that metaphor was misleading. Not only are we not picturing the author's world, the author gives us very few prompts when it comes to describing characters ... we were making these [images] ourselves out of our memories. And the process was much more weird than I had previously thought.
On the rise of electronic books and the future of physical books and their jackets
I'm very heartened these days to find, in fact, people still really want physical books.
I spoke recently at Sarah Lawrence College, and after I was done with my talk, I canvassed the crowd of young people just to find out, "Hey, what formats are you guys reading on?"
The fascinating thing was that everybody was reading on multiple formats, and the more fascinating thing was that all of these kids knew what the benefits and limitations of each of those formats were.
Someone would say, "When I want to travel, I take things on my Kindle." ...
"When I'm working on a complicated text that I need to cross-reference a lot, or that needs to be open to the Internet or Wikipedia in some way, I'll read electronically."
"If there's a book I want to keep around for any period of time, that I want to annotate, that I want to give as a gift, I'll read a physical book."
It seems like now we're really coming to a place where we're not expecting the digital medium to replace the physical medium — and that makes me incredibly happy.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We all know the expression you can't tell a book by its cover. But the truth is that publishers put a lot of time and effort into designing book covers and jackets that are distinctive, eye-catching and in some way, authentic expressions of the material within.
Our guest, Peter Mendelsund, has designed at least 600 book covers, ranging from classics like "Crime And Punishment" to contemporary novels like "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." Now, he's designed the covers for two new books of his own. One is a collection of hundreds of his book covers, including many that were rejected, along with commentaries on his technique. The other book, titled "What We See When We Read," is about how words give rise to images in our minds. Mendelsund spent years as a classical pianist before teaching himself design. He's now the associate art director at Knopf and art director at Pantheon Books. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Peter Mendelsund, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that the best jackets are the ones that try and capture - paraphrasing here - the meaning of a book - what you call a parallel.
PETER MENDELSUND: I'm very interested in what the author's project is. And in that way, I think as a jacket designer, you sort of have to read like an editor or a critic does. You want to be immersed in the text as you're reading it, but you also want to sort of pull out the strands that kind of indicate why the author wrote this book instead of another book. And those things are never really obvious. They're tacit in the text, and it means you have to read closely to determine what exactly the message here is. Sometimes it's - you know, you'll come across a scene that feels particularly pregnant. Or there'll be a metaphor that feels like somehow that one metaphor can sort of stand as the emblem of the entire book. But there is a moment when I'm reading an author's manuscript where I just - all of a sudden, it kind of comes to me. Well, this is that thing. This is the one specific that can stand in for this entire text.
DAVIES: So take us through the process, if you can. I mean, how do you go from reading the text to getting the cover?
MENDELSUND: Well, when I'm reading, I'm marking up the text. And, you know, I'm just trying to be very alert for anything in that text that has sort of structural importance or a particular kind of emotional weight. Or I'm trying to establish sort of what the affect of the book is in general because, you know, mood is very important on a book jacket. So - not that books sort of come prepackaged with one particular affect, but, you know, you're just trying to translate the feeling of what it is like to read that book.
So I sort of mark up the manuscript as I'm going. You know, anytime there's something that I think could be potentially, you know, that symbol, that thing that could sort of represent the text as a whole. And then when I have a sketch that seems like it could be compelling in some way, then I - you know, I render it more fully. I'll make a collage or take a photo, or I'll work on the computer. I'll set the typography. There's a lot of trial and error in it. I mean, it's mostly trial and error, honestly.
But while I'm designing, I'm then just looking for - I'm looking at the things that I've made to see if they feel consonant with the way that I felt when I was reading. And that's really the moment when you know if you've made a book jacket that works. If you're designing something and you look at it and you think, you know, I'm looking at this and I'm feeling very similar to the way that I was feeling as I was reading this book, then you know you've succeeded.
DAVIES: You did several jackets for some new translations of Dostoyevsky novels, take "Crime And Punishment," for example. You want to tell us about that cover? Can you describe it?
MENDELSUND: Yeah. You know, I've always been a little dismayed at the way that Dostoyevsky has been jacketed in the past. There tend to be sort of either the oil painting of the author or sort of a painting of, you know, gulags in the snow sort of thing or, you know, red square in the snow or people in sleds. You know, they're atmospheric, but they're really cliched and a little bit boring. And one thing you can tell when you Dostoyevsky is that there is an incredible vitality and urgency to the writing.
So the project for me was really about kind of how do you make the covers contemporary and vital again? And the answer, in this case for me, was by using only shapes. And there was a kind of shockingness to that at the time to use an abstract jacket for something like a, - you know, a canonical classic like "Crime And Punishment" or "The Idiot." But it was really exciting for me to see that from, you know, just color and shape, you could indicate something very specific about the narrative. In this case, it's a series of - for "Crime And Punishment," it's a series of black triangles that are sort of bearing down on a tiny, little circle. So, I mean, hopefully you get the sense of alienation and despair that sort of, you know, just runs throughout the entire story.
DAVIES: How many book covers have you designed, do you think? Do you know?
MENDELSUND: I know it's somewhere between 600 and 1,000, conservatively.
DAVIES: And how many covers will you be working on at one time?
MENDELSUND: A fair amount. I mean, right at this moment, I have 15 titles that I'm working on. And then I have a freelance project for - I'm recovering the works of Italo Calvino - that's 24, 25 different titles. So yeah, that's a fair amount of designing going on. So between my day job and my freelance work, you know, I try to work in volume. It's really - it's actually really helps the design work, I think, to not get too bogged down with one project.
DAVIES: And typically, how many versions will you make up?
MENDELSUND: Before I'll show a jacket, I'll tend to make a hundred and up various versions of a jacket for it. And that's before I show in to an editor or an author. And when I show something, I tend to show one - the one that I think really works. I tend not to show multiple options because that sort of engenders confusion in people. And then there's this kind of - there's this kind of thing that happens where people look at the various things you've made, and they want to pull the aspects of the various comps that they like and put them together in kind of a - into a kind of a Frankenstein jacket. You know, take the color from this one. And the type from that one. And the imagery from that one. Can you make something out of that? One of the interesting things about jackets is that the material isn't really transposable in that way. You know, one jacket works well with those components. You know, you bring in a different color, and all of a sudden, everything falls to pieces. So I like to show one thing only when I show the client.
DAVIES: I just did a little math. If you do a hundred versions of every book cover and you've done at least 600, that's 60,000.
MENDELSUND: God, that's depressing (Laughter).
DAVIES: Do you ever get home for dinner? (Laughter).
MENDELSUND: (Laughter) You should ask my children that question. Yeah - wow - I've never done that math myself. That's really quite amazing. The great news is that you can make a book cover pretty quickly. (Laughter) So, you know, each one of those versions, one might be just slightly different from the next. And like I said, it's not like writing a three-movement classical sonata. (Laughter) It really isn't.
DAVIES: One of the authors who you did covers for, Ben Marcus, said he was amazed that you seemed not to just have read, but to have studied his book. This struck me as interesting because, I have to say, one of the things that I do on this job and that Terry Gross does on this job is to read a lot of books. And the more closely and carefully we read, obviously, the better prepared we are for an interview. But it takes a lot of time. And it made me think, is a lot of your workday just reading?
MENDELSUND: Yep. Actually, that's exactly right. It's always surprising to people when they come to my office or they walk by my door and they see me with my feet kicked up with a manuscript. But, you know, I read constantly from the moment that I wake up until the moment that I go to sleep. I read on the subway. I read when I'm walking from the subway to my office. One learns that there is an immense amount of sort of interstitial moments in the day where one can kind of cram in another chapter. I'm sure you've had this experience as well.
But the fact that I'm in this job in the first place is because I like to spend most of my waking hours reading. I mean, I've always been someone who loves books. And I consider it sort of a bonus of the job that I get to do this work. Of course, sort of the more - I hesitate to say successful - but the more successful you are at the job, the more work you have to do. And as a result, the reading really piles up. And, you know, I do worry a little bit that, you know, at the end of my career if reading a book will just end up being a busman's holiday and I'll never read another book again. I'm hoping this doesn't ruin reading for me.
DAVIES: I was just going to ask if you are able to read and not think you're working on a cover while you're reading.
MENDELSUND: It's very, very hard. And actually, the books that I choose to read mostly - sort of for my discretionary reading - are all very, very plot-driven, sort of genre fiction - you know, sci-fi and fantasy and stuff like that. I really look for books that, ahead of time, I can feel pretty sure there won't be a big, underlying message or some sort of heavy lifting that I'll have to do as a reader. I just - you know, I like reading where I can sort of turn my brain off. But it is very hard. I'm used to reading while looking for visual emblems. So it's hard to turn that particular thing off.
DAVIES: Peter Mendelsund's new book about designing book covers is called "Cover." He's also written a new book called "What We See When We Read." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Peter Mendelsund. He designs book covers and has a new book - a big coffee table book with lots of the book covers he has designed in which he explains how his craft works. He's also written a book called "What We See When We Read." This book, "What We See When We Read," is really interesting. And I found as I looked through it and I read it, it's very visual. It was hard to come up with questions. It just kind of is. It tells us something about the reading process. You point out that when we read, we never really picture the characters that we're introduced to in any really clear, vivid way, right? What does that tell us?
MENDELSUND: I'm not really sure what it tells us. I mean, one of the reasons I think it's hard to come up with questions about the book is that I don't really provide any answers. And as I was writing the book I was worried that that would be irritating to people. But I'm just, you know, I'm not particularly qualified. I'm not a neuroscientist; I'm not a professional philosopher. I'm just not that qualified to talk about mental content and what it is and how it comes to be. How I am qualified is that, you know, I read books all the time and try to visualize their content, so I have this sort of working knowledge of the imagination in that sense. And, you know, I just found that as I was trying to kind of introspectively examine the way that I was imagining works of fiction, I found that if I sort of, you know, if I looked at the things that I was imagining as closely as I could, I would find that they weren't the things that I was imagining that I was imagining, if that makes any sense. That they weren't, you know, when I was thinking of "Anna Karenina," I wasn't actually quite imagining a person, or if I was, I was imagining a very specific person that I knew, say, a relative or often it would be sort of a combination of two people that I knew. Sometimes I wouldn't be imagining anything for her. I would be just sort of - I would have a placeholder in my mind that said Anna Karenina. And yet, when we sort of describe the reading experience, we describe this metaphor of kind of watching a film that we see the authors work sort of projected in our minds and we sort of watch that image kind of passively. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought maybe that metaphor was misleading in the sense that, you know, not only are we not picturing what, you know, the author's world, the author gives us very few prompts when it comes to describing characters. Authors in general, I mean, authors can't tell us everything about characters; that would make very - for very, very tedious books. But that we were sort of making these things ourselves out of our memories and the process was just more weird than I had previous thought - previously thought.
DAVIES: Now, it is fascinating. When I read this, I thought yeah, when I'm reading a book, the author is describing what the characters are doing or saying and I have some sort of an image. But when I try and really picture what that character's face looks like, it's not there. It's kind of blank.
MENDELSUND: Yeah, no, it's an odd thing. And for me, the tip off was really "Anna Karenina," reading that book. I realized that there were just no - there were very, very few descriptions of the main character in that book, that we know very little about her - that she has black curly hair and that she has small hands and that she's slightly plump and that's just about it. And yet, I had always had the feeling that I was imagining this fully fleshed out person that if she were to walk by me on the street, I would stop her and say hey, Anna Karenina. But in fact, when you - as I said, if you sort of try to think about what you're actually picturing, there's really not that much there.
DAVIES: One of the other interesting observations that you make about the process of reading a novel is that we are introduced to a character, and unlike in a film where we can see the character and what he or she looks like, information is withheld from us as we read a book about who the character is, both physically and their background and what they are going to do. And so that we are imagining - we're filling in the blanks in some way or another as we are sort of picturing the story that unfolds before us, which in some ways means we're kind of all reading a different book in a way. I mean, we're kind of co-creating it with the author.
MENDELSUND: That's right. You know, whether all the information is given to us upfront or not, we are co-creating with the author. I mean, we imagine things using the only tools at our disposal, which is our own personal experience. And so we sort of draw upon that well of memory and we try to put together cast as it were. We try to put together, you know, who Anna Karenina might be according to us. And you're right, there is this phenomenon where we learn about characters - they unfold over time in a book. So, you know, another interesting fact is that we have to amend; we have to sort of change and alter how we pictured a character as we find out more about them. And the only thing that's funny about that is that when we remember reading the book, we never remember having done that. We remember having pictured somebody, a character, you know, full-fledged from page one. And yet it's this very - it's a much more strange process, you know, sort of filling in the blanks and then, you know, changing a hair color, changing in eye color, changing even how someone behaves and yeah. It's - like I said, the metaphors that we use for reading, they just, you know, the more you examine it, the less they sort of seem to work as descriptions of the experience.
DAVIES: The other interesting observation here is that kind of auditory images are different from visual images. I mean, when we read the beginning of "Moby Dick" calling Ishmael, we don't picture Ishmael, but we can somehow hear those words being spoken.
MENDELSUND: Yeah, I mean, I think we listen to ourselves reading on some level when we read. I mean, we sort of read out loud to ourselves. I mean, when I read out loud to my kids, I kind of, you know, I do the voices for them and - which they enjoy. I'm a terrible actor. But I found - I've sort of surprised myself while I was reading doing that also. And, you know, part of reading is, you know, you're taking in all of this sort of sensory information - the letter forms on the page and, you know, the various kinds of things that you're imagining and the voices that you're hearing as well and your own voice reading along. And, you know, part of reading is just backgrounding and foregrounding various parts of that process. So, you know, if I become too aware of myself reading along in my head, then I'll have to sort of background that particular proclivity. And if I find that, you know, I'm imagining something - say that I'm imagining Anna Karenina as my mother and that's too close to home, I'll have to stop that and background that and try again. And, you know, like I said, the process is confusing and it's very much trial and error. And - but it's very - we are very invested in this idea that reading is just, you know, we are shown the author's world and we become immersed in it and that's the way it works.
DAVIES: Is there a book that you've always thought you'd love to do a cover for and never had the chance to?
MENDELSUND: Yeah, I've always wanted to work on, you know, any of Virginia Woolf's novels. She's always been one of my favorite writers and is probably one of the greatest writers at sort of describing the feeling of being. And I mean just in the sort of sensory way, like the kind of sense data that comes into us, she describes that so beautifully. And it would be a very difficult assignment, but it's one that I've always wanted and nobody's ever given me.
DAVIES: Well, here's hoping you get it.
MENDELSUND: Thank you.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Mendelsund, thanks so much for speaking with us.
MENDELSUND: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: We have a slideshow of some of Peter Mendelsund's book covers on our website - freshair.npr.org. His covers are collected in his new book, titled "Cover." He also has another new book, called "What We See When We Read." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who's also WHYY's senior reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.