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The big business of judging a book by its cover

The psychology behind designing a cover goes deeper than you may think.

Peter Mendelsund is releasing two books, "What We See When We Read" and "Cover." Credit: George Baier IV Peter Mendelsund is releasing two books, "What We See When We Read" and "Cover."
Credit: George Baier IV

The next time you’re casually perusing your local bookstore and a book catches your eye, chances are you can thank Peter Mendelsund. He’s designed covers for everything from “Ulysses” to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” — 300 of which are showcased in his own new book, “Cover.” But even if a cover seems merely decorative, Mendelsund says there’s always something deeper there.

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“Part of it is that I want to make something obscure enough so that on first viewing it doesn’t necessarily speak to you, but the cover comes along with you,” he explains. “There should ideally be some sort of moment when you’re reading and you see the cover again and say, ‘oh right!’”

In tandem with “Cover,” Mendelsund is also releasing a second book, “What We See When We Read,” about how readers visualize images as they read. When it came to designing the covers for his own books, Mendelsund says he had two totally different experiences.

“The idea for ‘Cover’ came to me instantly and just worked,” he says. “But for ‘What We See When We Read’ I could not come up with a cover for that forever and it was really a difficult, agonizing and grueling process.”

Even as the book industry continues to change and e-books continue to be popular, Mendelsund isn’t worried he’ll be out of a job any time soon. “I keep waiting for e-books to affect my work, but it hasn’t,” he says. “That’s been one of the wonderful and surprising things: people still love reading physical books. I keep getting asked to make them.”

On “What We Think When We Read”

Have celebrities played a role in readers’ visualizations?

In terms of movie adaptations, definitely. I think whenever an adaptation is made of a book, that being able to see something in the ocular sense crowds out all the other [visualizations of characters] you might imagine until you forget, which sometimes takes years. Sometimes it never happens. I read “Harry Potter” with my kids and there’s no way I’m getting those [actors] out of my brain.

Does race play a part in how people visualize characters?

We tend to colonize books with what we’re familiar with and make characters we can identify with, and we identify with those who are most similar to us. … It may also have to do with what you’re reading as well. We tend to read books that speak to our particular little daily wicks.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence

 
 
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