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'What We See When We Read': Covers, Imagination, and Everything in Between

"When we discuss the feeling of reading we are really talking about the memory of having read," says Peter Mendelsund, "and this memory of reading is a false memory."


Publisher: powerHouse
Length: 304 pages
Author: Peter Mendelsund
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08

What We See When We Read

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 448 pages
Author: Peter Mendelsund
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-08

Before going on to design book covers for publishers such as Vintage and Knopf, Peter Mendelsund was largely oblivious to them. "What did I see then when looking at the front of a book if not the cover? The title and author's name. Which is to say, I saw past the cover to the book." This is probably true for many of us, especially when we are looking for a specific book, as opposed to merely browsing.

Yet, if you are an avid reader, then you are already familiar with Mendelsund. Leafing through Cover, one of recent two books by Mendelsund, I was astounded by how many of his covers I own; more than a dozen at least sit on my shelves. Oddly, though I recognized the covers, I had never really taken the time to examine them, although, after reading Mendelsund, I doubt I will ever be able to overlook them again.

Published by powerHouse Books, Cover is not exactly a portfolio, nor is it a compendium of pensées with illustrations. It may be both of these things, but one is almost tempted to read it as a narrative, a story with a beginning, middle and end: the story of a man despairing over his future, making an abrupt and radical career change, achieving almost immediate success and notoriety, and after more than a decade of hard at work, contemplating endings both literal and figural (or is it really new beginnings?). Interspersed are conversational essays by writers, colleagues and friends about Mendelsund the designer, but the story is mostly about reading.

"When I read I am, involuntarily yet aggressively, seeking meaning. Subsequently, my designs tend to involve a modicum of explication and gloss. I find it near impossible to inhibit my textual interpretational tendencies when designing a cover." More to the point, Mendelsund seeks to pin down the book's most salient and expressive elements. The cover designer, we learn, must be reductionist.

The term ''reductionist' is often used derogatorily, and yet looking at Mendelsund's covers it is clear that, as so many of the authorial testimonies and pictorial examples demonstrate, he "gets it". On the cover of Michel Foucault's Discipline & Punish, for example, is a meter stick. It does not just allude to the rapping of insubordinate knuckles in schoolrooms--that would be only the most obvious connection. Mendelsund writes above a picture of the cover: "Providing a metric of, and implement for: punishment." And there is even more to it, I think.

Foucault's name and the title are spelled out orderly, symmetrically, in a black box at the top of the book, like the header of a case file, giving the impression that everything is "in its right place". The bottom two thirds of the book are white: a blinding, sterile, institutional white that calls to mind the interiors of clinics, schools, government buildings and prisons. From this white the metric stick emerges, ex nihilo. We read: "fig. 12" beside it, and bear witness to the triumph of institutional order and what Heidegger called "calculative thinking".

Mendelsund's new cover for Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, a huge improvement over the old one, which consisted of a blurred photograph of Benjamin against a jaundice-yellow background, is at first glance abstract: white bands cut across a red background; however, a curious white circle within a black circle draws our attention to the right: it is in fact a map symbol for a city center. Mendelsund writes: "Benjamin's flaneur is provided with a stylized set of streets to wander; each street being named after one of his essays". Barely visible, there they are: "the storyteller" street, "the task of the translator" street, and so on.

Of course, Benjamin and Foucault are both dead. Working on the cover of a book by a living author is more challenging, and looking at how Mendelsund overcomes problems and negotiates constraints makes one appreciate how clever he truly is. Equally interesting are his "failures". Cortazar's Hopscotch is one he keeps coming back to, though the edition now in print is his design. And we are treated to several of his cover ideas for Geoff Dyer's Zona, none of which were used, and all of which are better than the one now found in bookstores ("Someday", he writes, "I hope to successfully design a cover for Geoff Dyer.")

Perhaps the most revealing compliment Mendelsund receives from the many contributors to the book comes from Steven Amsterdam, who writes about the cover Mendelsund designed for his The Things We Didn't See Coming: "It wasn't a Peter Mendelsund jacket, it was the right jacket for the book." It is here that we get a sense of Mendelsund's work ethic and priorities: his personal style is always subservient to the text.

Not surprisingly, Mendelsund is extremely well read, and one of the perks of a book like Cover is that you find yourself making lists of books and authors you had forgotten about, overlooked, or perhaps never heard of. You want to ask Mendelsund questions about them the way you would to a literary critic. And while Cover might be considered a testament to Mendelsund's close readings, his second book, published by Vintage concomitant with Cover, is a phenomenology of reading entitled What We See When We Read that calls to mind classics such as John Berger's Ways of Seeing and Marshall McLuhan's The Medium Is the Massage. Fully illustrated,it's aphoristic in style, and bound to find its way into the classroom, not so much because of what it tells us about reading, cognition and metacognition, but because of the important questions it asks.

What We See When We Read is a phenomenology, that is, a first-person narrative: exactly the right methodology for a meaningful discussion on the experience of reading. So much emphasis these days is placed on the putative objective point-of-view that we overlook the subjective and inter-subjective, the psychological and the social. We do this at our own risk, and the dangers are already evident in, for example, the emphasis on teaching to standardized tests, for which students are trained to read for information.

The reader is confined to the now, focused upon extracting data: symbols, themes, rhetorical devices. Yet, Mendelsund correctly notes that when we read longer narratives, especially novels, "past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment--and in the performative reading moment as well. Each fluid interval is comprised of an admixture of: the memory of things read (past), the experience of a conscious "now" (present), and the anticipation of things to be read (future).

Reading narratives (and by narratives we mean stories in a conventional sense, as opposed to, say, the directions for setting up your DVD player, or some politico's five-point plan for a better tomorrow) requires memory, concentration and imagination. Does reading for information require the same work, to the same degree? What type of reading do we want students to be doing at school? Mendelsund does not ask these particular questions, but the reader should.

As it turns out, Mendelsund believes that too much information provided by an author can actually be deleterious, especially in the case of characterization. This is because, for readers, characters are more feeling than fact, more action than adjective. Descriptions "may be more explanatory, but they don't add up to a gestalt--a complete and simultaneous vision". Indeed, character descriptions may be contradictory and still be effective if the timing is correct. Of course, they won't be easy to draw, though this is true even of the very best descriptions.

Mendelsund provides the following thought experiment, one of several in What We See When We Read: "Picture your mother. Now picture your favorite literary character... The difference between your mother's afterimage and that of a literary character you love is that the more you concentrate, the more your mother might come into focus. A character will not reveal herself so easily. (The closer you look, the farther away she gets.)"

Much of what is said in What We See When We Read has been said before, and will not come as a surprise. Henry James argued that less is more in his 1908 preface to The Turn of the Screw, and if you know Roland Barthes well enough to recognize his picture in What We See When We Read, then you will have an even better idea of some of Mendelsund's influences. This won't stop you from appreciating his thought experiments and eloquent reflections, as well as his clever use of illustrations throughout.

Reading and cognition, he concludes, are, like cover design, reductive by nature. And metonymy is not merely a literary technique; it may very well be "part of our innate language faculty." "This inborn ability to extrapolate a whole from a part is fundamental and reflexive, and understanding the part-whole structure enables us, somehow, to see characters, to see narrative, just as it enables us to function, mentally, physically, in the world."

What We See When We Read and Cover will appeal to an inquisitive general audience, and thoroughly satisfy bibliophiles. These books, we are told, may mark what Mendelsund calls the "third task" of his life: classical piano was the first, design, the second. With writing as the third, readers are in luck.

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Above: Image by Peter Mendelsund


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