Arts, Culture & Media

He's designed famous book covers, but now he wants to write the books

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Left to right: drafts of Peter Mendelsund's design for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the final cover

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Peter Mendelsund

You probably don't know it, but you've probably seen the work of Peter Mendelsund hundreds of times. The book cover designer created the famous cover for "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and other mega-hits from author Stieg Larsson. Now he wants to be known for what's underneath the cover, too.

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Mendelsund is out with two new books of his own. One, called Cover, is a collection of some of his best designs over the years. The other is very different: A wide-ranging, illustrated essay about the experience of reading, called What We See When We Read.

In the latter, Mendelsund explores how readers imagine fictional characters and places. Though his job is "to draw visual elements out of a book in order to put them on the book’s jacket," Mendelsund says, it didn’t occur to him until recently that this is “kind of a strange process.”

“We have this sort of myth that the process of reading, of being a reader, is like sitting in a room and watching a movie,” he says. 

He expanded on the theme in an interview with The New Yorker: “[Readers] felt that when they read a book they loved, they saw every aspect of it. Not only that, they felt that the greatness of a book was predicated on the fact that they were able to visualize it: ‘That character was so real,’ they’d say."

But in reality, he says, it's little more than a myth: Most readers actually have vague and approximate images in mind when they read. "That myth of the little homunculus sitting in the back of your skull, watching the author’s movie being projected onto the front of your skull — that’s really important to people," he says. "But the whole edifice crumbles when you start to ask questions about it.”

Mendelsund came to design late in life, following a career as a concert pianist. The transition from piano to design took around a year or so, he says. He had dabbled with designing personal invitations and such, but he had no formal training.

"It just seemed as good a shot as any for a new career," he says. "Honestly, I might have ended up in anything." Instead, he found good luck using that time-honored job-search strategy: family connections.

“My mom's friend is the Scrabble partner of [book cover designer] Chip Kidd's boyfriend,” Mendelsund explains with a laugh. “So, through that game of telephone, somehow I got an interview with Chip at Knopf.”

Kidd liked the work Mendelsund showed him. A few days later Kidd called with the news that someone had just left the staff and invited Mendelsund to come back in. “I met everybody else and I was working there a week later — and it's the only job I've ever had other than playing the piano,” Mendelsund says.

Mendelsund’s commercial breakthrough design was the cover of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The cover caught people's attention because it didn't conform to the typical mystery/thriller cliches. There was no shadowy guy with a trench-coat, no dagger dripping with blood.

“The signifier ne plus ultra for that genre is blood,” Mendelsund says. “You could put a puppy on a cover and splatter it with blood and you have a crime novel.”

Instead, Mendelsund’s jacket was bright yellow. “There's nothing brooding or sinister about it,” he says. “I would say that it's only merit is that it's reasonably pretty. That is the thing that a jacket should be.”

Millions of copies and many book covers later, Mendelsund is now one of the world's most acclaimed book designers. He's one of a small handful of big-time book cover designers, and he's created covers for new editions of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, James Joyce and even for Sonia Sotomayor's memoir.

Does he ever wish he had tried something else?

“Coming to a profession late, the way I did to design, makes you keenly aware of the fact that life is long and full of surprises, and the road forks many times,” Mendelsund says. “I feel like the big lesson for me about moving from the piano to design is that there are other things out there.”

Of course, though his risky decision paid off, he admits with a laugh that it “doesn’t ensure that the next one will."