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Among the many gifted designers now at work in the publishing industry, Peter Mendelsund is one of my favorites. To my shame, I can’t remember the first time I saw an intriguing cover, turned to the back flap to see whose work it was, and found Mendelsund’s name, but by now I have a slew of books he’s designed, including his splendid series of Kafka and Calvino paperbacks. (He’s also a fine writer. Talent is unevenly distributed.)

In The Look of the Book: Jackets, Covers, and Art at the Edges of Literature, published this fall by Ten Speed Press, Mendelsund collaborates with David J. Alworth, a scholar specializing in literature, media studies, and cultural history (deeply conversant, for instance, with the work of Bruno Latour: a red flag for me, but catnip for some) to examine the process and history of book cover design. In one way, The Look of the Book might be considered a companion volume to Mendelsund’s splendid earlier book Cover; in other respects it’s quite different, with too much boilerplate of this kind: “In the 1970s, Penguin UK continued to publish notable book covers, including iconic designs by David Pelham for Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.” That dreadfully slack “iconic” (see also, for example, p. 175, discussing the cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) points to a larger problem: a clichéd narrative. A couple of pages later we’re nudged about designs that offer “a safe choice for a controversial text.” Oh, dear.

Of course it would be possible to enjoy and profit from this massive and cunningly designed book while merely dipping into the text and captions now and then. If you are hunting for a last-minute Christmas present to give someone who loves books, who waxes eloquent about those old New Directions versions of Céline and Edward Gorey’s covers for Doubleday Anchor, you need look no further. The ideal recipient would be someone around my age (72), whose reading lifetime coincides with the period of publishing history primarily emphasized in this survey, roughly the 1950s to the present. William A. Edwards’s cover for the Bantam paperback of Hesse’s Steppenwolf gets a page to itself, resonant of its time and place. I found this to be true even for many covers that didn’t stir me particularly in their day: the much-admired Vintage Contemporaries series (which gets a page here), for instance, and Carin Goldberg’s series of Vonnegut covers featuring a giant “V.”

Mendelsund and Alworth examine digital covers as well; see especially Chapter 7, “The Future of the Book Cover.” Here’s the conclusion to that discussion:

One thing is certain: the book cover is always evolving, and as it continues to do so, it will continue shedding light on the shifting relationships among literature, culture, design, technology, media, and the economy. Indeed, the book cover is a prime example of what poet Ezra Pound called a “luminous detail”: a bright spot, in a crowded cultural field, that enables us to see the world in a fresh way. That is, if we pause long enough to ponder it.

That passage made me think of one of my favorite parts of the book, featuring what Mendelsund calls his “explorations” for James Joyce’s Ulysses and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. These make up Chapter 6, “Two Case Studies,” which consists entirely of his cover designs. Chapter 7 features the finished cover for the Apple Books Moby-Dick, designed by Oliver Munday and Mendelsund. 

Rather than making me brood over specific covers and cover artists I love that were not included, The Look of the Book nudged me repeatedly to hunt in my own shelves and stacks for books the look of which had caught my eye once upon a time. For those nudges, too, I’m grateful to Mendelsund and Alworth and the team at Ten Speed Press responsible for this project.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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