Cover – Peter Mendelsund

I was very, very lucky this Christmas as Santa brought me not one but two books imported all the way from America, and to note not via a certain evil website, both of which were by book jacket designer extraordinaire Peter Mendelsund. I was told about both Cover  and What We See When We Read by many, many people (indeed the later was in the Yankee book swap but I wasn’t mean enough to swap it for Gone Girl) when I was at Booktopia Asheville, indeed Ann and Michael have sung their praises on Books on the Nightstand. Having read Cover I can completely understand why; it is such a wonderful ode to books and a book which safe to say will be riding very high on my books of the year tomorrow.

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

During those years at the piano, I was completely unaware that book cover design, as they say, “was a thing.” Though I’d read plenty of books over this period, it had not occurred to me that a book’s cover was consciously composed and assembled by a human agent. Not that I assumed book jackets were made by machines, or committees (it turns out they can be made by either), I had simply never given book jackets a passing thought.

What did I see then when looking at the front of the book if not the cover? The title and the author’s name. Which is to say, I saw past the cover to the book.

However Cover is not just Mendelsund’s thoughts on what makes a book cover so important. As we go through the sections Classics, Vertical (which is all about Manga), Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non Fiction & Poetry we hear from the writers who Mendelsund has made covers for, well apart from in Classics then Jane Mendelsohn discusses Kafka whose reissues were one of the first works that made everyone really sit up and pay attention to Mendelsund’s work. (No I am not popping pictures of those in, you will have to go and buy the book to see them, and they are stunning.) Here is Ben Marcus discussing the importance of the cover for the author and what the power of a cover can do…

The missing jacket is the final piece to by which nearly everyone will come to know the book. The writer wants the jacket to stand up for the book, serve as the most perfect flag. The jacket should celebrate the strengths of the book and conceal the flaws. It should perhaps rouse dormant chemicals in the body of and cause a sharp kind of lust in the buyer, that might only be satisfied by actually eating the book.

Of course it is Mendelsund and his work, and the process of it, that links this book. Throughout you really get a fantastic insight into how the idea’s for covers are initially formed and then how the process carries on. I don’t want to spoil any of this for you but I thought I would give you a sneaky peak, for example here is the final design for Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Mendelsund jokes, in one of his many brilliant footnotes on some of his designs, thankfully lost the title of The Man Who Hated Women which he had to have as one of his design’s titles) the he created…


Here are many of the ones that didn’t make the cut, these are marked throughout with red X’s…


You therefore get the mental process and the design process which I found completely fascinating, as I am sure any book lover would. And this is a book for book lovers. Did I mention that? I have come away with an epic list of books; obviously Mendelsund reads all these books and was an avid reader and book lover before, and I have now an urge to read many he has covered and clearly loved. (He even almost convinced me about Kafka at one point!) I am particularly keen to read Lolita as Mendelsund has some interesting thoughts on it. I know, I know I should have read it already. Also added to the list are now in particular Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, which Mendlesund has a fascinating relationship with, and these two books by Imre Kertesz. I don’t care what they are about (Mendelsund has done his job as he does) I just want to read them for their covers…


On top of these are The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir, the aforementioned Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu and both Never Fuck Up and Easy Money by Jens Lapidus. (You can find these again on my new To Get My Mitts On page here with some others.) Oh and the whole of the Pantheon Folktales and Fairytale Library. Though I couldn’t work out if these had been commissioned or not. I will do some digging; if they have they will be mine.


You might have possibly had the merest hint that I bloody loved Cover. It was a book I thought I would dip in and out of over time, I sat with it and lost several sittings perusing the covers, taking in peoples thoughts on reading and books – it is rather like a book version of having a relaxed mooch through a book shop perusing the covers and eavesdropping on the other book lovers, no higher praise can be bestowed really. As I mentioned before Cover will easily be in my best books of the year and I am now very excited to read What We See When We Read, though I think I might just spend some more time revisiting and staring at Mendelsund’s collection of books and their covers, again and again and again.

Oh and if you want to hear more about book covers then do listen to this edition of Front Row, which I had the joy of whilst getting home in a snow blizzard (I exaggerate not) on Boxing Day on the way home from my mothers. Have you had the joy of reading either of Mendelsund’s books? Do you own some of his covered books in your collection? Which other wonderful books about books would you recommend? I have a new fancy for a selection of my new shelves (yes I have been shopping for more today) being dedicated to books about books of all shapes and sizes.


Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2014, Peter Mendelsund, powerHouse Books, Review

4 responses to “Cover – Peter Mendelsund

  1. Oh very nice love seeing different covers together

  2. This looks seriously fascinating and tempting. I’m going over to the States next week… hmmm…

  3. David

    As a long-time fan of Peter Mendelsund’s work, I snapped ‘Cover’ up as soon as it was released, and it is an utter joy: hugely inspiring, but of course dispiriting too! Fascinating to see and read so much about his design process and to see so many rejected covers – an insight into not only his thinking but into the minds of the editors and marketing people who decree “this will sell/won’t sell” which can sometimes stifle creativity (been there myself many times!), or in the case of a genius like Medelsund, spur him on to create something even better.
    I loved the fact that he comes across as such a READER too – he clearly loves books in general and is well-read, which I think shows through in the sophistication of the approaches he takes to texts. Of course as a designer/illustrator, you have to read the text (or at least most of it) and sometimes it can be a chore if the book isn’t your cup of tea, but often a book will present you with almost too many images and ideas and it is easy to fall into the trap of being too literal or trying to cram too much in – what Mendelsund’s rejected (or unpursued) covers show is how good an Art Director he is as well as designer: he seems to be a brilliant self-editor, instantly knowing how to see past all the unnecessary superfluous imagery a book might suggest and hone in on that one crystalised idea that captures the whole.
    I’ve a number of books with covers by him, some (like ‘Wizard of the Crow’, surely one of the most stunning covers of the last decade) bought purely to ogle, many bought to read (of the ones you’d picked out I do recommend is Bausch’s story collection ‘Something is Out There’ which is very good).

    For further reading on book design, there are a couple of books about Penguin and Faber covers that are good, though if you want more in the vein of ‘Cover’ I’d highly recommend ‘Book One’ by Chip Kidd – Kidd is another of the Big Names in US book design, and unsurprisingly is also associated with Knopf (he designed amongst many other things the covers to Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which were imitated everywhere for most of the nineties). For an overview/history of US cover design you can’t beat ‘Jackets Required’ by Steven Heller which takes you from the greats like Paul Rand and George Salter (see also ‘Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter’ by Thomas S. Hansen) to Kidd and his contemporaries. ‘Front Cover’ by Alan Powers is a similar book but with a British slant, covering everything from Eric Ravillious to Jeff Fisher. And if you’re interested in a more technical, theoretical approach to the subject (a ‘how to’ rather than a book of pretty pictures) Peter Curl’s ‘Designing a Book Jacket’ is long out of print but still as relevant and useful now as it was when it was published in the 50s.

  4. Cover looks amazing. I’m going to have to seek it out.

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