The Look of the Book

David J. Alworth

John Hersey’s Hiroshima takes place, as one might expect, in Hiroshima. Originally published in the August 31, 1946, issue of the New Yorker, it recounts what the magazine’s editors called, in a statement to readers of the issue, “the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb.” Within a few months it was brought out as a hardback book, with a subdued, text-based cover. But two years later, when Hiroshima was republished in paperback as Bantam Book No. 404, its cover implied a different setting. In this image, two people, not Japanese, are fleeing an explosion just beyond the frame. They are young, white, and stylish: she epitomizes New Look fashion in her loafers and gathered skirt, he sports pleated cuffs and a fitted trench coat––the same type of coat that Holden Caulfield dons on the cover of the notorious 1953 Signet/NAL paperback of The Catcher in the Rye.

Bantam Book No. 404, it appears, takes place in America.

The cover artist, Geoffrey Biggs, wasn’t trying to be deceptive. As he says, in a note that sits just before the copyright page, he was trying to be universal: “I just drew two perfectly ordinary people—like you or me—and had them portray alarm, anxiety, and yet wild hope for survival as they run from man-made disaster in a big city––a city like yours or mine.” Still, as Paula Rabinowitz points out in American Pulp, her capacious and vibrant study of the pulp paperback revolution in the United States, Biggs’s analogical reasoning denies the specificity of the image that he created. Biggs’s cover misrepresents Hersey’s restrained account of America’s bombing of a Japanese city by depicting this event as “a garish nightmare of American annihilation.”

For Peter Mendelsund, Associate Art Director at the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, such misrepresentation would register as a failure of “translation.” Mendelsund is himself a leading designer of book covers, and “translation” is one of his preferred terms for the process whereby he imagines those covers into being. The task of the translator, as he defines it in his recent monograph Cover, is to select a “unique textual detail that, as the subject matter for a book jacket, can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.” In Biggs’s Hiroshima cover, metaphor slides over into metonymy: by some dubious logic of substitution, as six Japanese survivors become two white ones, an actual act of war becomes merely a possible one. Within a few years, perhaps seeking a better detail to carry the metaphoric weight of the book, Bantam discontinued Biggs’s cover, replacing it with an image that includes an official photograph of a mushroom cloud.

What is a book cover? At one point in Cover, Mendelsund answers this question taxonomically. A book cover is whatever it does; it’s a composite object with multiple functions. First of all, he notes, a cover is a “skin,” a “membrane,” and a “safeguard” that protects the book, but the mode of protection has changed over the years. Before the turn of the 20th century—when bindings, rather than jackets, typically carried decorative elements—the jacket functioned both as a barrier to scuffing and sun damage and as a kind of wrapping paper, concealing the artistic gift within. But this wrapping paper, as Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger have shown, soon became a site of ambitious and lavish design. The rise of the paperback in the late 1930s introduced a new platform or material support for the cover image, and it also established the conditions for the emergence of what Louis Menand has called “a distinctive mid-century art form”—the striking, often lurid, pulp-paperback cover.

These days, as physical books compete with ebooks and audiobooks, covers perform a different protective function, which is really a feat of partitioning and resistance. “As we spend more of our reading time in digital, disembodied, notional environments where texts lack differentiation, and may easily leach into one another unconstrained,” Mendelsund contends, “covers (and physical books in general) remain part of an anxious cultural effort to corral and contain the boundless.”

But covers also perform the exact opposite function. They “translate” the verbal text into a visual image that can be instantly scanned, uploaded, downloaded, clicked, tweeted, and liked—passed around the digital network as an “advertisement” and a “teaser” of what the text includes. Whether on the bookstore’s display table or in Amazon’s “recommendations” stream, covers “wheedle, shout, joke, cajole, wink, grovel, and otherwise pander in every possible way in order to get a consumer to pick up a given text.” Such anthropomorphization, as Eugenia Williamson has noted, can involve a semiotics of gender that ranges from humorous to downright retrograde, as in the case of UK publisher Faber’s 50th-anniversary edition of The Bell Jar, whose highly controversial cover depicts a young woman holding a compact and applying powder.

Still, controversy isn’t necessarily bad for sales, and book covers, like any other commodity package, are basically silent salespersons, though they are not merely advertisements for themselves. They are also advertisements for us. If every book, as Mendelsund writes, “telegraph[s] who we are,” then its cover is our “nametag,” as well as our “secret handshake” and our “trophy”: cultural technologies that, in a flash, orient us within a social arrangement, which includes the arrangement that we have with our past selves. Covers are the interface between the readers we once were and the book fetishists we remain, even in the digital era. When covers act like “souvenirs,” commemorating a transportive reading experience, they allow us “to live prettily amongst our accumulated wisdom.”

In this sense, covers are connectors, both physical and metaphysical. Just as the verb “to cover” has multiple, even contradictory, meanings—to protect and conceal on the one hand, to describe and analyze on the other—so too an actual book cover simultaneously mediates many different relationships. Covers not only stage an interaction between word and image, printed matter and visual representation, they also broker various connections among reader, designer, editor, publisher, and bookseller.

Of course, these parties don’t always get along. J. D. Salinger was so dismayed by the cover of the 1953 Signet/NAL paperback of Catcher that he insisted on his own design for the Bantam cover of Nine Stories. Much as Kafka didn’t want the insect pictured on the cover of Die Verwandlung, Salinger asked Victor Weybright, publisher of New American Library (NAL), not to show Holden’s face. But NAL’s cover artist James Avati, widely known as “the Rembrandt of Pulp,” had a different plan in mind: “Let us show [Holden] coming down Broadway or Forty-Second Street expressing his pained reaction to people who LIKE movies, etc.” The final image, perhaps as a slight concession to Salinger, has Holden looking away from us at a different kind of “lure”: what appears to be a Times Square strip club and a man soliciting a prostitute.

Rabinowitz tells this and other stories of the “touchy author,” as Salinger was labeled by an editor at Little, Brown, in a cultural history that spans roughly the years 1930 to 1960. Her argument is that, during this period, the “pulping of almost everything”—from literary classics and popular science to hardboiled-detective stories, whodunits, thrillers, and science fiction—not only “brought modernism to Main Street” but also prompted a mode of “demotic reading” wherein “one reads above or below one’s ‘level,’ grabbing whatever is at hand.”

The boldest claim in American Pulp is that demotic reading dramatically impacted American political and social life, helping to pave the way, for instance, for civil rights legislation. In many cases, especially as the paperback market got more competitive, such reading was often precipitated by looking: the quick glimpse at (and from) a striking cover. Take, for example, the case of Truman Capote’s debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. The 1949 Signet/NAL paperback features a cover by Robert Jonas, a consummate modernist and friend of both Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky in the 1930s. With its image of a shattered windowpane framing an Edenic couple, Jonas’s cover adapts a motif from Manet’s Dejuener sur l’herbe, much as his cover for the 1947 Penguin paperback of Daisy Miller adapts the stylistic features of cubist collage.

Such covers exemplify how pulp paperbacks, even before New York stole the idea of modern art, brokered a convergence between the European avant-gardes and American mass culture, a convergence that now appears, in Rabinowitz’s words, “as a form of secondhand modernism,” belated though not merely derivative. But flip over Capote’s book, and the back cover tells a different story. Reclining on a divan, his right hand resting suggestively below his waist, Capote stares intently at his beholders––a pose that belongs to a tradition of gay male authors displaying themselves that originated with Whitman’s open collar on the flyleaf of Leaves of Grass.

Photograph by Harold Halma

Putting Capote on the back cover was savvy marketing. “This book,” observed NAL editors in their internal memoranda in the lead-up to publishing Capote’s A Tree of Night, “should be tied in as closely as possible with OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS and with this spectacular young author himself.” A tie-in seemed like a good idea because Capote was considered “exotic” and “his widely reproduced picture” promised “a good many newsstand sales.” However, Capote himself wanted something different, newsstand sales be damned. “As for the book,” he wrote to Weybright, “I hope the jacket will be plain—That is, not so gaudy as the one used on OTHER VOICES. I would prefer, too, that you did not have a photograph of me … the biography, I think, should be simply that I was born in New Orleans and have published 3 books.”



Mendelsund’s professional biography forms a kind of coda to the history that Rabinowitz tells in American Pulp. In 1954, Knopf launched Vintage Books, a line of quality paperbacks that now includes literary classics, contemporary fiction, and distinguished nonfiction. Mendelsund’s first job in design was a junior designer position at Vintage, and his first book, What We See When We Read, recently appeared as a Vintage paperback.

After years of training as a classical pianist, Mendelsund stumbled into his current career. In Cover, he provides the details of this transition in the form of a Künstlerroman: a humorous and poignantly self-effacing story of hard work, frustrated ambition, depression, recalibration, more hard work, a little risk-taking, serendipity, and finally … success. “People seem to enjoy hearing the cheerier and more condensed version of my story,” he writes, “which runs something like: I was a pianist; then I taught myself design from scratch over a ridiculously short period of time; then Chip Kidd hired me at Knopf. Huzzah!” And yet, he continues, “the more I tell the italicized story above, the more it begins to feel like the fable it truly is.”

Fair enough, but the dazzling covers in Cover speak for themselves. A sampling of Mendelsund’s work can be found on his website, but the book provides a richer experience of his art, not least because of its own elegant cover, which consists of text on a clear plastic jacket and a cleverly decorated binding. “A good book cover,” wrote John Updike, “should be a bit recessive in its art, leading us past the cover into the book itself,” and Mendelsund is a master of recession—his covers might “pander in every possible way,” but they don’t give up all the secrets they contain.

In the introduction to Cover, Tom McCarthy asserts that “a cover designer, first and foremost, is a reader,” and the phenomenology of reading comes up frequently in Mendelsund’s writings and interviews. What We See is even subtitled “A Phenomenology” to underscore the book’s concern with consciousness and perception. His design process begins with what he calls, in What We See, “a retirement” from the material world and a release into the world of the text. This journey from one world to the next involves attending to what Roland Barthes, writing about photography, termed the punctum: the “accident” or detail in the text that “pricks” the beholder and thus makes the text “poignant” in a uniquely personal way.

As beholders and readers, we’ve all experienced puncta. Barthes himself, looking at a William Klein photograph of children in New York, becomes fixated on “one child’s bad teeth.” A talented cover artist, however, can discern which puncta are not only personally significant but also representative of the work, capable of carrying the “metaphoric weight of the entire book.” For Mendelsund, such puncta emerge through an act of co-creation between author and reader. “Authors are curators of experience,” he argues in What We See. “They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can—out of disorder they create narrative … Yet no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers—no matter how diligently prefiltered and tightly reconstructed—readers’ brains will continue in their prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort.”

Covers are the interface between the readers we once were and the book fetishists we remain, even in the digital era.

Mendelsund’s day job at Knopf gives him a lot of time to ponder the question of what we see when we when read. What We See provides an answer not in the form of a grand thesis but as a series of aphorisms (starting with an epigraph from Wittgenstein), observations, and illustrations; in this way, it offers a practitioner’s perspective on the psycho-visual effects of verbal art, an issue that has been addressed by thinkers such as Elaine Scarry and W. J. T. Mitchell. It turns out that what we see when we read is closely related to what authors don’t say when they write.

What does Ishmael look like? Does Melville ever describe his physical appearance? Certainly not in the way that he describes Queequeg’s. And yet, almost instantly, we feel that we can picture Ishmael; he is ours. The opening pages of Moby-Dick perform one of the greatest feats of narrative intimacy in all of literary history––but Melville vivifies his narrator without fully describing him. He leaves us to fill in the gaps, which is one reason why film adaptations (of Melville’s novel and others’) register as a kind of violation. That’s not my Ishmael.

A cover, though, isn’t an adaptation. It’s a translation: verbal to visual, temporal to spatial, mental to tactile. When Mendelsund designs a cover, he seeks not merely to visualize a textual detail but to reimagine the text as a material object that, in multiple senses, depends on the printed matter it contains. “In the end,” Updike reflects, “nobody buys a book jacket.” True, and yet when we buy books, we buy composite objects, not merely texts, that have been co-created by multiple parties, like what we see when we read.

Just as the text is an intertextual web, so too the book is an assemblage, a combine, a mixed-media affair that owes its existence to author, editor, and designer, as to publicist, blurb writer, and bookbinder (human or machine), indeed to a whole network of makers within a specific system of production. The book, in other words, is a social entity. The question is not only how many books on the shelf do you need to see yourself? but also how many selves do you see in each of your books?

To ask about selves in books is to define book art as relational art, which makes sense in the case of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, whose US/Knopf cover was designed by Mendelsund. (The UK/Cape cover was not.) As a novelist, thinker, and performer, McCarthy is obsessed with the ontology of relations—with the dynamics of connection, disconnection, and reconnection and with liminal, transitive spaces between people, things, and systems. This obsession emerges as a main theme of Satin Island, a novel that begins, fittingly, in an airport lounge, where travelers mill about, killing time between connecting flights.

McCarthy’s narrator-protagonist is a corporate anthropologist, tasked with writing the decisive ethnographic account of our epoch. And this account, as Mark McGurl recently noted in his review of the novel, is supposed to sum up the hyperconnected condition of contemporary life. Mendelsund replicates the motifs of connection and layering on his cover, which features a grid, a rectilinear network of nodes and vertices, partially obscured by what he calls “an archipelago of oil; a ballistic aftermath of ink; a Triste Tropique of spillage.” (These motifs, alternately figured, also appear on his draft covers for the novel, some of which are available here.)

Moreover, in addition to announcing title and author, the text on the front cover makes a claim about the genre of the book at hand. Satin Island is A NOVEL, yes, but also A TREATISE, AN ESSAY, A REPORT, A MANIFESTO, and A CONFESSION. This detail provides a visual analogue to the critical claim, made by figures as different as Mikhail Bakhtin and Henry James, that the novel is an utterly voracious genre that seeks to ingest all the other genres in a way that simultaneously cancels and retains their rhetorical force.

Novels collect genres as books collect people; in this sense, the novel is, and has always been, a vastly relational art, which could explain why both the novel and the book have persisted in our hyperconnected present, despite all the cultural forces arrayed against them. When it comes to Satin Island, McCarthy has written a novel that bristles with typically intelligent ideas about life in an age of omnipresent networks, while Mendelsund has designed a typically attractive jacket, one that winks and wheedles, makes some noise, but doesn’t shout. So whether you want to read or simply to look—to ponder the ontology of relations in the 21st century or just to “to live prettily amongst [y]our accumulated wisdom”—Satin Island has you covered.

But at this point in the digital revolution, it’s probably better to ask what books like Satin Island want from you. If, as Leah Price argues, books are social media, then what they want is to be connected, and covers, not bindings, are their most important devices of attachment in a culture of instantaneous, image-based communication. While novels invent people for us, covers accrue people to books. Together, they make us feel a little less alone together.

Correction: July 29, 2015 
The original essay mistakenly described the cover of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as depicting a a young woman applying lipstick rather than powder.