Tag Archives: Simone de Beauvoir

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

Other People’s Bookshelves #7: Peter aka Dark Puss

So for the seventh, yes seventh and still plenty more to come, we have our first male reader and their shelves from the delightful, and oh so wry, regular commenter here Dark Puss, aka Peter. Peter is a particle physicist and professor at a University in SE England. He is an avid reader though he has given up buying books because of a lack of shelf space. He was brought up by two academic parents who surrounded themselves with books and thus he rarely had to buy any himself as a child or teenager. He has inherited a love of modern European and Japanese literature from his late father and a fascination with Proust from his mother, though he has yet to read further than the end of Swann’s Way. He reviews books for the Journal of Contemporary Physics and puts his paw marks on a number of literary weblogs under the pseudonym “Dark Puss”. He runs the weblog “Morgana’s Cat” http://morganas-cat.tumblr.com/ which is an outlet for his photography and occasional comments on novels, plays, music etc. A number of steampunkish pictures from other sources are also to be found there.

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

There are all sorts of books on my shelves but as they are all full (as you can see!) I do not buy books for myself anymore. I do still go into many bookshops and if I saw something I just had to get then I would indeed be looking for a book, or books, to remove to make space.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

In my office at work the books are ordered by subject; quantum mechanics, optics, particle & nuclear physics for example. At home there is some order, photography & typography go together and most of my cookery books occupy a single shelf, but mainly books are placed according to size.

S Shelf2Home

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

The honest answer is “I do not know”. My parents were avid buyers of books both for themselves and for me so I very rarely had to buy any myself. One book that I do remember buying from an Oxfam shop in Taunton when I was  about 11 and which does still reside on my shelves is “Water Power Practice” by Johnstone-Taylor (1931).

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I don’t have pleasures that I’m guilty about!

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

That’s a tricky question. I’ll answer the last part first and say that I would rescue as much of my art collection as I could in preference to the easily replaceable books. Books that I would be very sad to lose in a fire would include “Lettere di XIII Huomini Illustri” which was printed in Venice in 1561 and is my oldest book, “Sisters Under the Skin” by Norman Parkinson (a literary lady who inscribed something very lovely in it knows why this is important to me) and “The Romance of Engineering” by Henry Frith, 1895 which was given to me by my late father and, coincidentally, was awarded as a prize at my old school in Edinburgh in 1898. You can see a photograph of this book on Cornflower’s famous weblog here: http://cornflower.typepad.com/domestic_arts_blog/2008/07/knitting-but-not-as-we-know-it.html


What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

It’s four decades ago so I cannot vouch for accuracy, but probably it was “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir which I read when I was thirteen or fourteen. I found it profoundly influential but I didn’t own it then and I don’t own it now.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

In the past probably yes, but nowadays almost certainly no. I’ve run out of space! I make very good use of public and university libraries.


What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

The two volumes of Murakami’s 1Q84 which I received last Christmas as a present from my family.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands! I’d love some of the large “picture” books by photographers whose work I admire (e.g. Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Man Ray, Mapelthorpe, Miller, Rankin) there are certainly many cookery books I’d love to add and, given my desire to read it completely one day, the latest translation of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I really don’t know! They would spot my love of Colette, some Murakami, a number of technical works (at home) on astronomy, typography, botany and ornithology. They might, if eagle-eyed and very curious, locate a fairly large collection of music for the flute which I am currently re-learning under the expert eyes and ears of my fantastic teacher Katie Morgan. They would note the number of books on London and some of its quirkier aspects such as the lost rivers and abandoned tube stations. They would note my enthusiasm for cooking and wine, noting the preponderance of books by Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. What would I like them to think? “We could get a good meal, a glass of interesting wine and some diverse conversation here. Maybe we can ask him about the Higgs boson too!”


A big thank you to Peter/Dark Puss for letting me grill him. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Peter’s responses and/or any of the books he mentioned?


Filed under Other People's Bookshelves