Daily Postings
Literature : Interview

Peter Mendelsund

by Christopher King

Wrapping words up in images.


A shelf of books with jackets by Peter Mendelsund. All images courtesy Peter Mendelsund.

Among book designers, Peter Mendelsund is the best reader of all. You always recognize one of his covers when you see it, and it’s not because he tends toward certain colors or typefaces—quite the opposite. Rather, it’s something about the way the cover illuminates the text. You can tell he didn’t just read the manuscript; he internalized it. The result somehow feels both inevitable and surprising: the only possible solution but one you could never dream up yourself.

That such a good reader would turn out to be an outstanding writer is perhaps inevitable as well, but Peter has once again confounded expectations by publishing two books of his own, with two different publishers, on the same day. The first, Cover, is a design book full of words, and the second, What We See When We Read, is a philosophy book full of pictures.

Six years ago, I had a desk a few floors up from Peter’s office at Random House. He was already famed for his iconic covers for authors like Martin Amis and Mark Haddon, but many of his greatest hits—the Kafka reissues, the Cortázar covers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—were still to come. We became acquainted that summer, and every now and then I’d poke my head in and ask for advice about how to be a better designer.

Of course, now I realize I was asking all the wrong questions. So I recently went back to Peter’s office and asked for advice about how to be a better reader.

Christopher King Could you tell me a little bit about how you were introduced to reading as a kid?

Peter Mendelsund Osmosis.

CK (laughter) You grew up in Cambridge.

PM Yes.

CK So it was in the air.

PM It was, weirdly. It’s obviously a pretty intellectual town. My parents weren’t involved with academia there—they weren’t at Harvard or Tufts or MIT. But those people were all around me; all my friends were the kids of professors at those places. Also, I came from a family of readers. It was pretty natural. My parents were reading all the time; they had a lot of books in the house. They encouraged me—in fact, I’m remembering that most of the birthday presents I got from my grandparents were books. When I was twelve, my grandfather gave me The Last Puritan by Santayana, and he gave me The Brothers Karamazov when I turned fifteen. All the presents were important books. A premium was placed on that in my family. I mean, I—it was just hard to avoid.

CK And did you read The Brothers Karamazov when you were fifteen?

PM Yeah!

CK Wow.

PM I didn’t actually ever read The Last Puritan. It’s still sitting in my house unread. But yes, I did read The Brothers Karamazov, and then I read it again when that Pevear and Volokhonsky translation came out in the '80s for North Point Press, or whoever it was that did it. I’ve read it once since then. Russian literature, especially, was a big thing in my family, which was mainly Polish Jews. Anyway—yeah, osmosis. Definitely. What about you?

CK I think I read Crime and Punishment when I was fifteen. I remember that on our first day of English class that fall, we had to give a summary of a book we’d read over the summer and I chose that one. Maybe it was odd that I was reading Dostoevsky, I don’t know. I was excited about it.

PM It’s funny to think back on the studious, worldly kid you thought you were at the time with those books, and how much you missed—

CK Oh, yeah. I’m sure I didn’t capture any of it.

PM Like I said, I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov several times, and each time, I was like, What the hell was I thinking about when I read that last? How little of that book—I mean, it’s not that I skipped a lot of it. It’s just that when you read it, you don’t identify with it, and you have nothing in your own life to apply to it …

CK But you might bring a different reading to it, as well. There are probably things you got from reading it at fifteen that you wouldn’t get reading it now.

PM I think when I read it the first time, I was like, This is a murder mystery.

CK Once you’re, like, five hundred pages into it …

PM Right, once you’ve figured out all the patronymics. That’s the real mystery: Who the hell is this?! (laughter) But then, when I read it the second time, the big thing was the whole Alyosha/Father Zosima spiritual stuff, all the ethics—all of that was really profound. And the third time I read it, I think I was probably a dad, and the biggest thing was the death of the child at the end. It affected me really deeply. Each time, it presented itself as a different book. It would be really interesting for me to go back and look at how many times I used “we,” “you,” and “I” in this discussion, because it’s really me talking about my phenomenological experience, and for all I know, people are going to read What We See When We Read, and just be like, What a freak. I have no idea what anyone else’s reading experience is like, except for those of the people I’ve asked and talked to. I think I tried to make it clear throughout the book that I was actually canvassing people and talking to people and finding out what their experiences are like. But people read for different reasons, and I think some people read in order to commune, which I find to be a paradoxical and interesting kind of set-up, because obviously it is a very solitary activity. It’s physically solitary, but on the other hand, the idea of reading and what makes it compelling, supposedly, is the idea of sharing thoughts and emotions that take place during this mystical union between reader and author.

CK I was surprised to find how much of it I totally related to. You do use the word “we” a lot, and I felt that it was very inclusive. Recently, a friend of mine asked me if I ever imagined places from my childhood when I was reading novels, which I’ve never—I’m positive I’ve never done that before. But it’s something you mention in the book. Apparently I’m defective in some way, or else the setting of my childhood was spectacularly boring.

PM But everybody’s is, I think—or most people’s. I hope I don’t screw up other people’s reading experiences in the way that I’ve screwed mine up, where now I have this meta-awareness of what’s going on while I read, which is a really weird thing—you want it to go away once it’s there. It’s like trying to tell yourself to go to sleep: You’re, like, I really need to wake up early tomorrow, but you can’t get out of your own head.

CK One thing that’s been really great, though, is that I feel like I have more agency over my own reading process. I usually have this secret shame when I catch myself skipping ahead, or jumping around in a paragraph, and you talk about doing that.

PM And there’s this other weird thing—I think I mention this in the book—where, especially at the beginnings of books, you don’t have your bearings at all. You’re totally disoriented. You’ll have to read through passages that have no referent. You’ll read the words, you’re kind of hearing them, and that is also a kind of reading. It’s not actually calling anything up at all, not even something abstract—it’s just the mirror. Semantic, grammatical—moving from one word to the next. I think a ton of reading is done that way—way more than we think. In a way, it’s just going through the motions. I very often have to go back. I’m like, I have no idea who this dude is. What the hell just happened?

CK Right, because you fell asleep during the last page, or something.

PM Do you ever write in your books?

CK I’ve never written in a book. I sometimes take notes externally, especially when I’m reading for work. I keep a lot of notes, and sometimes I copy down passages. But I don’t think I’ve ever written in a book; that must be due to being a librarian’s child.

PM Yeah. I get that. I have no respect for the physical book whatsoever. I’ll write in them, rip the covers.

CK It’s not disrespect, it’s just that I don’t know what kind of notes I’d make. I’m mostly copying down passages or images.

PM There are certain kinds of books where it’s really difficult to follow the train of thought. Henry James, for example. A lot of philosophy. It can be a real slog, and you can’t just say to yourself, I’ll catch up down the line. You really can’t miss anything, or you’ll get completely fucked up. It’s like a mathematical formula. You can’t just remove a variable and think that everything’s going to be okay. So with books like that, it’s just—you play the piano, too, right?

CK Yeah—well, I did.

PM So when you write in a score—there are things you write in a score, like fingerings, that make it easier for you the next time you go back. Sometimes, I find myself writing in a score things like an arrow, a mental note about what’s coming on the next page. There are certain things which facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the thing. Reading is a little bit performative in that way. The next time I pick up this Baudrillard book, for example, I’ll open it up, I’ll look at this page, and I can read it through word by word, but in one glance I can see the big ideas on this page because I’ve underlined them, and that’ll make this word-by-word reading easier for me—I’ve got the armature in my head. I highly recommend trying it.

CK It’s probably the case that your reading is a lot more ambitious than mine. (laughter)

PM Well, I don’t know—not everything is that. There are certain kinds of books where if you don’t keep trying to read them, that muscle atrophies, if you know what I mean.

CK You have to stretch yourself. I remember the first time I read The Sound and the Fury—I was surprised because I found it very easy to read, but then I got to the end not having any idea what had just happened. I basically missed every single plot point of the book. But his language is such a pleasure; it’s so poetic that you just get caught up in the rhythm of it.

PM And it’s very evocative, too—there are passages in Ulysses, lists and things, which are really not evocative. They’re important, textually, but they’re not going to call up anything for you, and you’re not going to be able to viscerally enjoy them. You’re right about The Sound and the Fury—it’s a really sumptuous text. Absolutely beautiful. I’ve read it only twice, and the first time I read it … me, too: I had no clue. But that’s what great about these books—they support all of these readings.

CK It’s funny that you say you’ve only read The Sound and the Fury twice, because I keep thinking: When do you read? When does this happen? Most people don’t find time to get through it once.

PM I’ll just preface this by saying that most of the Vintage book, was written on the subway. Almost all of it. There’s all this interstitial time in our lives, it’s just that we all spend it doing different things. I don’t have a lot of time to read or write, because I have these jobs and I have my kids, and the mornings are always for practicing the piano after the kids go to school, so I would be reading either right here at my desk, or at lunch time. It’s a lot of stolen moments, but there are so many possible stolen moments in any given day, and I don’t even really know how it happens—most of the time, it happens when I’m doing some kind of repackaging of something. So, rereading Ulysses for the last time happened because I was doing the Joyce thing, and it was a good opportunity to read all of his work, except for Finnegan’s Wake, which I’m never going back to again—that was an awful, humbling experience. So now I’m going back and rereading all of Calvino, which is sort of—the job itself, as you’ve probably noticed, is a great excuse to do these things. One of the greatest perks of our jobs is that we’re given license to read good things. That’s a big part of it.

CK But how do you pursue your own interests?

PM Part of it is just wanting to be part of the cultural conversation. When we live in the places we live, and work in the places we work, this milieu—most of the people we know are talking about books and movies and magazines, and there are all these kinds of cultural capital that are being passed around, and you want to be part of the conversation. I find that my friends, the people whom I spend my time with, are talking about books. Part of that is just wanting—you talk about things you’re working on, but you also want to know, well, what is that novel that everyone’s talking about, and would you like it or not? To find out, you have to read it.

CK So when do you do that?

PM I guess before I go to bed at night. I have a stack of books by my bedside. Do you—I mean, everyone has a stack of books by their bed, right? Is that how you go to sleep?

CK Yeah, most of the time.

PM So yeah, that’s like the last thing I do before I lose consciousness. I read.

CK So, here’s something I imagine you’ve probably thought about: sometimes it’s hard to escape the feeling that what we do as cover designers doesn’t really matter.

PM (laughter) It really doesn’t!

CK I’m sure this happens to you almost constantly: whenever I introduce myself to someone at a party, and tell them what I do, almost immediately the first thing they say is, “How does it feel to work in a dying industry?”

PM I think “Do you know Chip Kidd?” is number one, but the one about the dying industry is number two. Number three is, “Do you read the books?”

CK So many of the people I encounter seem to have this idea that books are no longer printed. Maybe I’m just surrounded by a lot of early-adopters, but …

PM No, it’s a very common feeling. People feel this way because they’ve read that it’s so.

CK And so many people assume that I must hate e-books, because I come at this as a print designer, originally, but I don’t feel any animosity—at the end of the day, I just love reading. It doesn’t matter much to me how it happens, although there’s nothing like print.

PM No, there’s nothing like a physical book, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for a digital book. It’s interesting—I taught a class recently at Sarah Lawrence College, and I got the chance to be among people younger than I am, to find out what the hell is going on with kids. So I asked them to talk to me about digital versus physical books, and the thing that I found incredible about that whole group of college-aged kids is not just that they read across media and platforms, but that they had very clear ideas about which was good for what. It wasn’t a question of one medium replacing another. Yes, of course e-books are great for traveling, text books … what I loved about it was that it wasn’t a binary equation. It’s more that they have this very sophisticated—I love how I’m talking about them as if they’re Martians, but of course, they are to me—

CK Well, Sarah Lawrence students—

PM (laughter) They are, a little bit. But it was this very natural and yet sophisticated understanding of what both these things are good for: Huzzah, we have another great thing, which is e-books.

CK You know that your next book will have to be What We See When We Read E-Books, right? Do you think there’s a fundamental difference in the reading experience?

PM There are a bunch of differences. Do you mean in terms of visualizing?

CK Visualizing, or even just the way your eye strings together a series of words. Does your eye jump around in the same way?

PM There are e-books, and there are e-books—even within a given platform, you can still choose not just typeface and size, but whether you’re going to have an infinite scroll, or if you’ll paginate, any of these things—that decision makes a difference.

CK Yeah, you’ve talked about all these decisions we make when we read, and the agency we have when we read, but this is introducing a totally new form of agency.

PM Exactly. The scroll is the big one for me, because it’s very different always having your eyes fixed at the top of the page. That’s a very different kind of experience, because part of the experience of having read a book, as opposed to reading a book, is your memory of that experience. Your memory is predicated on these mnemonic events, and a lot of those mnemonic events take place geographically on the page. Once you remove that part of the equation, not to mention the haptic aspect of how deep you are into the reading experience as you hold the book—that it gets thicker in your left hand as it gets thinner in your right hand. That’s a kind of haptic feedback. There are all these cues that you’re picking up that become mnemonic devices, really. Your memory—I know this from music, too. When you have to remember a score visually, to some extent—

CK It’s always amazing how quickly you can find a passage based on where it was.

PM And we’re not aware of doing this, but it is a big part of reading physical books. When you’re paginating in an e-book, you still have that feeling: Oh, that was in the upper right hand corner of the book. You have it less because—I find that I even change the type size in the course of one reading experience. Sometimes I’ll have the type bigger; sometimes I’ll have it smaller. And it’ll paginate differently. And there’s that scrollbar at the bottom of an iBook, for instance, that shows you how deep you are into a book—I don’t pay attention to that at all. So honestly, most of the time I’m reading an iBook, I don’t think about where I am in the book—I’m going to read until it’s over, which is so different. I mean, come on—when you’re reading a book, you think, Oh my god, this huge thing happened, is there enough time for this to be reversed?

CK Or sometimes, you’re thinking, Oh my god, I can’t believe there’s so much of it left.

PM I think that all the time, even with books I love. There are certain books that I think are works of genius, but I’ve been so grateful to be done with them.

CK So now we can’t remember where something was on the page, but we can search for it.

PM That’s the other thing—it’s not even a trade off; these are just totally different experiences. What you can do is look things up easily … There are certain books where it’s great to be able to have one-touch access to the web for any of your queries.

CK Or one-touch access to a dictionary.

PM Right, I find that’s very useful—although I think the ability to look something up quickly also makes it less of an event, which makes it harder to remember, I find. When you had to get up and walk over to the dictionary, because you had to know what the word meant—it was stuck in your craw—you go, you look in the “f” section, there’s “e” … all these things you had to go through, which you used to think of as stations of the cross, to find out what something meant. You would remember the word, because it came with all of these steps. Am I crazy?

CK No, I think that because we can access information so quickly, we can forget it just as quickly.

PM That’s my point. And the other thing about being able to look something up on Wikipedia from inside the book, or access the Web from within—that’s a function of these books—is that it also takes you out of the narrative flow a bit to do that. So what you might gain in terms of better understanding or deeper knowledge you lose in terms of immersion. So, there is no perfect reading experience. I find e-books great for the subway. You have all these books on this one thin, little device—it’s miraculous. I love it. I would say I read sixty to seventy percent of my books that way.

CK That’s going to be scandalous when it hits the Internet.

PM Maybe that’s our headline. (laughter) Nobody gives a shit what I do, I promise.

When you’re reading for design, what do you do?

CK It’s a totally different kind of reading.

PM How do you find it to be different?

CK It’s at once more active and more passive—there’s more searching, and certainly less luxuriating in the prose.

PM Although I think you have to be aware of—this is funny, this is actually something I’ve never thought about specifically, which is nuts. You’re looking for symbols, emblems, metaphors—and that’s something I don’t do when I’m reading for pleasure. I don’t think, Well, what object in this book carries the most metaphorical weight? And it’s not like I’m doing that consciously when I read for work, but there is this part of you that—maybe you agree with this—you have to disengage the part of your brain that’s reading for work, because to really understand the author’s project means that you have to let yourself go a little bit.

You have to feel where the meat of the book is. When you’re reading just to read, you feel these things naturally. When you pull the camera back too far, you get a skeletal view of the thing. Do you know what I mean? You have to have the emotional experience of a book to understand what it is you’re meant to do for a jacket. Let me amend that—you don’t have to, but the best jackets are the ones that understand the stakes. There are times when I’ve done a jacket for something that I’ve not read very well, and the jacket was cool—maybe I thought, Hey, this is a cool piece of graphic design, and then reread the book and thought, This is a really passionate work about X, Y, or Z, and gone back to my jacket and said, “Well, that was glib.”

CK Yeah. It’s hard not to be, when you have to work as fast as we do.

PM I know. Authors don’t get that. You don’t always have an endless amount of time to really commune with the narrative, and sadly, it seems that the better you are at it, the less time you have to do a good job. It’s weird—there are moments when an author wants to work with me on something, and I just want to say, “You really don’t want me; you want somebody who can do a really good job.” It gets to be that you’re just so overburdened with things to read and think about, and if you feel that burden, and you should—it’s a responsibility, I mean—then it would be better to have a few weeks to do a few things really well, rather than do a lot of things only semi-well, or poorly.

CK I think most people would say that you’re doing all the things very well.

PM That’s sweet—and they’d say the same about you, but you and I know that isn’t true. (laughter) There’s a portion of every list that I feel terrible about.

CK Do you get faster, over time?

PM Designing? When I first started, I was really fast. Then I went through a period where I started to slow down, because as I said, the stakes got higher in a way. I think being anonymous is a fantastic thing; you have no cards on the table. You’re playing with house money, or whatever. Then there’s this moment where it’s like, Oh, this is Peter’s jacket. And you think, Shit, I did a bad job.

So I started to slow down and do a better job, but then I lost the luxury of being able to slow down. How many covers are you usually working on at a time?

CK I’d say I’m working on probably a dozen projects at any moment.

PM That’s the other thing that people don’t understand. Sometimes, I imagine an author imagining a designer, and that designer is completely enveloped in their world, and inhabiting the book in the way that their ideal reader, and they themselves, are inhabiting the book. The truth is that like any reader, we’re juggling all of this stuff, just flitting in and out. But there’s a good side to that, too, in that if you’re working on a lot, it frees you up in some ways.

CK What I love about working quickly is that it forces you to be more visceral, more instinctive—

PM It’s the spontaneity of it, which is a wonderful, natural, great thing. Although there’s also the spontaneity that comes, ironically, after you’ve worked on something for so long that your brain alchemizes in some way or disengages such that you find yourself doing something that’s dead on.

CK That happens too.

PM There was something else I wanted to ask you about, apropos jackets. Do you ever find that you have a jacket that—how do I put this—that makes you feel torn between representing the text and selling it?

CK Yes, always—

PM Really? Always?

CK Not always, but I feel that tension.

PM Because they’re really two different things.

CK They are, and it’s hard—we work with such great writers, and I feel a responsibility to them, but at the end of the day, my job is to sell their books. Of course, who knows what a “selling jacket” is? Nobody.

PM That’s the other thing. Have you ever made two jackets for the same book, one of which would really be the one that would push the most units, whereas the other one was a real visual—like a really perfect visual analogy of the writer’s work, and you had to choose between them?

CK I would say that most of the time when we have some conflict—well, I don’t want to say conflict, but when we have arguments in the office, most of the time that’s what it’s about. Maybe we have an idea that seems perfect for the book, as well as another idea that seems like a more “selling jacket.”

PM Do you ever have that argument with yourself?

CK Yeah.

PM So when you are working on a book jacket—this is something that I have no idea whether I’m alone in this—but when you’re working on a jacket, and, let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re more or less the sole decider, how many versions of this thing will you make? I don’t mean variations on a theme—how many angles will you take before you say, Enough is enough?

CK It depends. Of course, the happiest times are when you just do one.

PMMagnifique!”

CK (laughter) Basically. You finish the cover and, well, that one’s done. And that happens sometimes. It just depends—other times, it’s a struggle. I think the thing that surprises me the longer I do this—and it occurred to me on the way over here that I’ve now been working in book design for, I think, about as long as you had when we first met. I don’t know what that means. (laughter)

PM Maybe that we should both retire!

CK (laughter) I agree! But what surprises me is that the longer I do it, the harder it gets, and the longer it takes.

PM Why do you think it gets harder? I’ll tell you what I think when you’re done.

CK I can’t decide if it’s because I have better taste than I used to, or because I’ve already used up all my good ideas …

PM I can tell you it’s not that—honestly, you have more great ideas in you than you probably know what to do with. I think it’s that you realize over time that you have enough good ideas that the one you end up using for the book is kind of arbitrary. I’ll bet that if you soul search, you’ll find that’s true, too—that you could probably keep going ad infinitum with any of these books, and you’ll never find the perfect jacket, but your ideas are all pretty good, and any of them could work.

That brings up some existential dread for me, because I feel like we go through this whole thing of thinking about sales and marketing and important decisions, but in the end, these are empty vessels that we’re making. I’m finding that it’s harder to make a jacket the more I do it because I just don’t know when to stop and show something. I’m like, This could work, I guess this could work, this totally different thing could work …

When you’re younger, you’re trying to keep up with the Zeitgeist, and you’re kind of cool, but the older you get, the less any of that matters—you just want the cover on the book that you wouldn’t feel would be dissonant with having the book in your house and reading it. Which is a little disappointing, isn’t it? (laughter)

Christopher King is a graphic designer and illustrator. He is the art director of Melville House, an independent literary publisher based in Brooklyn.

To learn more about Peter Mendelsund, visit his website, http://mendelsund.blogspot.com/.

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