8 August 14 | Chad W. Post

Over at the New Yorker, there’s a really interesting interview with cover designer Peter Mendelsund, whose new book, What We See When We Read, sounds amazing:

A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader.

What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page—a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so—and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved—or reviled—literary figures. In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf’s Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature—he considers himself first and foremost as a reader—into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this, and I’m sure I’ll write something up about it after I have a chance to read it, but the part of the New Yorker interview that I really wanted to share is this part about the forthcoming new editions of Calvino’s books:

You’re in the middle of repackaging the work of the Italian writer Italo Calvino. Can you tell me how that project came to you?

A year or so ago I received an e-mail from Giovanna Calvino, who is Calvino’s daughter, and she said that she had read, in an interview I gave somewhere, that I loved her father’s work, that she was working with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to repackage the backlist, and would I be interested in doing it? I can’t tell you what a shock it was to have the name Calvino in my inbox. Obviously I jumped at the chance to work on these. So then I did what I always do when designing a backlist series: I started to reread all of the books. This is, by far, the most fun part of these kinds of projects—the reacquainting oneself with not just some of the work but all of it. But finding images that could represent all of these books, and make them work as a series, is a particularly tricky problem, because there are three distinct stages to Calvino’s writing: a realist phase, a fantastical phase, and a kind of semiotic or metafictional phase. So it was a challenge, but a really fun one.

I’d been working on my monograph, “Cover,” which is primarily photos of my book covers, and I wondered if it would be meta, in a way very appropriate for Calvino, if each of his books featured a photo of a book on it. The first idea that came to me was completely absurdist in a way that I imagine Calvino would have loved—to photograph each of the old editions of Calvino and frame them, so that you’d have a sort of catalogue of old Calvino books. Then it occurred to me: If we’re going to take photos of Calvino books, wouldn’t it be better if we made Calvino books that don’t exist? The next stage was designing imaginary Calvino books. “The Path to the Spider’s Nest” was going to be a kind of young-adult pulp book; “The Baron in the Trees” an old, eighteenth-century-style Italian cloth-wrapped, foil-stamped book; “Cosmicomics” a comic book. I could make them not just books but written artifacts of various kinds—“Six Memos for the Next Millennium” could be literally memos. We would make one copy of each book and photograph it for each cover. I don’t normally collaborate, but there’s a wonderful designer, Oliver Munday, who is also interested in Calvino, and we worked together on this project.

What came next?

At the beginning of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller,” the narrator is addressing the reader in the second person, and he tells you that you see the steam from a locomotive go over the opening paragraph of the book. I loved the idea of the text itself interacting with specific imagery, and I thought maybe it would be interesting if I actually set the opening paragraph of each book on the cover, with an illustration intermingling with it. “The Baron in the Trees” would have the branches weaving through the words.

But somehow I worried that they wouldn’t sell the book properly—that they might be too visually busy to be viscerally affecting. So I started thinking about doing illustrations of abstract shapes that by themselves don’t necessarily have a ton of meaning, and on each one drawing a line or two that would add to that meaning, or bring it into focus. I made a tree-like thing that was just a blob, then inserted a little sword into it, like a sword a child might draw, which becomes a tree trunk. This seemed to work. I made some more of them. They have a kind of Calder-like feeling. I like their seeming naïveté.

And these were chosen for the finished covers, correct?

Yes, but in the middle of that I had this crazy revelation of how I thought these books should be, a kind of bolt from the blue, while I was on the subway. I just had this crystalline vision of the whole series. The covers would be all type, and each one would have a description of an imaginary book jacket on it, each one written by a different author. We would get a bunch of great writers I know who are huge Calvino fans to write them. The jackets would be ekphrastic. Everything would have to be imagined by the reader. No actual imagery on the covers. Robin Desser, an editor here at Knopf, said it was the most Calvino-esque idea she’d ever heard.

In the end I showed Giovanna all three ideas—the photographs, the illustrations, and the ekphrastic direction—and she liked them, and her mother, Calvino’s widow, agreed to the all-type direction. But then there were some objections that they would be hard to see as thumbnails on Amazon. I think honestly the publisher was looking for something a little poppier and user-friendly. In the end I was happy enough with any of these directions that it didn’t really matter to me, though I still think that the all-type thing was one of those once-in-a-lifetime ideas. The only thing that would have made it better would have been to have Calvino himself write those descriptions. But I’m happy with the finals, and I think they will really stand out on a shelf.

Calvino is an all-time favorite of mine, and these reissues are a perfect opportunity to reread him and write up a bunch of stuff for Three Percent . . . The first three books — Into the War, Collection of Sand, and The Complete Cosmicomics — come out this fall, and we’ll post more info about them then.


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