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‘What We See When We Read’ a small, shallow pond of a book, but ‘Cover’ is worth a look

Let me get the brickbat out of the way. What We See When We Read is a small, shallow pond of a book in which author Peter Mendelsund exhaustively swims around without ever going very deep.

The premise – and there really isn’t much more – is that literary fiction is at its best when the details of character and place remain vaguely painted. The author asks readers to supply their own details, inevitably drawing upon their own life experiences, and thus creating an intimate bond with the narrative.

Far too late in the volume, Mendelsund cites an unnamed neuroscientist who theorizes that some primal survival mechanism keeps our brains from imagining anything too perfectly because unless we “are actually present, it costs to act, and false alarms can lead to problems.” How I wish Mendelsund had delved a little deeper into this fascinating claim. But he moves on.

And then there is the discordant irony of his musings being so frequently illustrated. Almost every section features a short observation accompanied by a slightly obscure image, a technique that runs counter to the overall conceit of leaving things to one’s imagination. Mendelsund even cites Kafka’s plea to the publisher of Metamorphosis not to put an image on the cover: “Not that, please not that! The insect itself cannot be depicted.”

I have a feeling that by including so many illustrations Mendelsund is punking the reader. He obviously has thought deeply about how his mind works when he is closely reading a book for which he must create a cover. But this volume probably would have been better presented as a blog written in the form of easy-to-tweet missives (with visuals!).

Mendelsund redeems himself in his other new book, a large-format, mid-career retrospective called Cover. This one is most definitely worth your time, particularly if you’re interested in seeing what Mendelsund can do, rather than reading what he thinks about while doing it.

In his foreword, we learn that Mendelsund toiled for many years as a decent but not brilliant pianist who eventually had to face the music and get a real job. He brainstormed with his wife, and they hit upon the “easy” profession of design.

Mendelsund makes a point about his lack of formal training, almost asking for forgiveness, but clearly he turned his outsider’s status into a virtue.

Most designers start early (Mendelsund admits that design is for the young) and tend to become all-consumed by design while lacking the counterbalance of life experiences. Mendelsund, on the other hand, formed his aesthetic in a different medium (music) and came to his second profession with a certain maturity. His mind was unmuddled by the minutiae of process and technique, which too often keep older designers from achieving the freshness of youth.

He quickly was scooped up and put to work at Knopf. It is fitting that among his very first covers were Edward O. Wilson’s The Future of Life, which evoked Mendelsund’s hope for his new career, and Benita Eisler’s Chopin’s Funeral, which conjured up the one he abandoned.

Cover is foremost a visually enticing tour of some of the most important books of recent times, made even more memorable by Mendelsund’s daring covers. The beautifully designed volume is nicely paced with a mix of testimonials from authors whose book covers Mendelsund has designed, along with his own comments on various aspects of the design process.

As a designer, my favorite feature is the inclusion of the mock-ups that eventually led to the final pieces. As I was reading the short texts and sidebars, I could not help wanting to skip ahead and see the enticing versions of each book cover that Mendelsund tried, rejected and eventually published.

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