Take Five with Peter Mendelsund ’91

Peter Mendelsund ’91 is a graphic designer and writer, and the creative director at The Atlantic magazine. He is the author of three books about design: What We See When We Read, Cover and The Look of the Book; he recently published his first novel, Same Same. He is currently working on a redesign of The Atlantic while completing his second novel, The Delivery. He lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was incredibly excited about my academic and intellectual prospects, but socially underdeveloped and fearful. I was a hot mess, frankly. The good news is that it took very little time to feel at home.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

It’s mostly a welter of stimulation and sleeplessness. But I remember that my roommate was the nicest young man. He was from southern India, and was so much more shell-shocked by the new situation we found ourselves in than I could’ve ever been. He handled it all with total aplomb (unlike me). I also remember that one of our suitemates in Carman, Andrew, was a nationally ranked parliamentary debater, and he and I really got into it. We loved to debate one another. It didn’t matter what the topic was, we’d argue about it. I recall one afternoon when another kid on the floor got a haircut, and I said, innocently, to Andrew, “Funny, his haircut makes his head look smaller,” to which Andrew replied, “Actually it makes his head look bigger ... ” Three days later we were still battling over the physics, history, semiotics and phenomenology of hair vis-à-vis faces (i.e., we were the absolute worst).

What class do you most remember and why?

Wallace Gray’s Finnegan’s Wake seminar. I took Professor Gray’s famous “Eliot, Joyce, Pound” lecture, at the end of which we were offered the possibility of signing up for his one-off class on Joyce’s monstrous final novel. We had to answer all of these oblique-seeming questions about ourselves — about our hobbies, what languages we spoke, if we played an instrument, how much Gaelic history we knew, etc. Then there was some mysterious vetting process after which we found out if we were among the chosen few. And I was, which was surprising to me, as there were only 14 of us accepted into the class (in retrospect, I think it was the fact that I was a musician [classical piano] that helped me gain admittance). Finnegan’s Wake is a book that is not discernibly in English; it comprises portmanteau words from scores of languages and requires a general erudition the likes of which no single person could ever possess. So Professor Gray crowd-sourced the text by cherry-picking a class with diverse talents. And it was amazing.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Behind the organ console at St. Paul’s Chapel. Having been a pianist I had never played a pipe organ before coming to Columbia but boy oh boy, that sound changes a man. Playing Bach on three manuals in that chapel is still one of my single favorite memories.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would study harder. Drink less. Be kinder. Appreciate what a singular experience it was to spend four years learning about everything from experts.