Joseph Sullivan: The Book Cover That Never Was

Let’s talk about the elephant in the design studio for a moment. For a book as celebrated as Infinite Jest, it took quite some time for its jackets and covers to catch up. Mr. Wallace apparently loathed the jacket for the hardcover edition, telling David Lipsky that it looked like the American Airlines safety booklet. “The cloud system,” he said, “is almost identical.”


Original paperback designer Elizabeth Van Itallie and 10th anniversary designer Keith Hayes retained the cloud imagery and made some strong improvements along the way. With each new design, we see fewer clouds. The hardcover design that Wallace disliked is stuffed with them; by the time we get to Mr. Hayes’ design, there’s but one. The typography too becomes bolder and more meaningful; the torqued, off-the-canvas title text of the current in-print design suggests infinity much more successfully than past editions have. The Hayes design is the queen of the cloud covers.

Book design fans may know there’s a new design forthcoming from Little, Brown to mark the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest’s publication. The sky has cleared and we’re in new, amusing-ourselves-to-death territory:


I haven’t been able to dig up anything on what Mr. Wallace thought about the Van Itallie and Hayes designs, and sadly, he’s got nothing to say about Mr. Walsh’s effort. But we do know Mr. Wallace did attempt to art-direct the design of Infinite Jest, and that he had at least two photo suggestions:

1. He wanted to use a specific photograph of Fritz Lang directing the cast of Metropolis. Nick Greene at Mental Floss wonders if it’s this one:


2. Mr. Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, said this in an interview with The Millions:

“For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image.”

As I begin to read Infinite Jest for the first time, I’m dying to know why Mr. Wallace suggested these photos. I’m looking forward to the images that pop into my head. And I’d love to know what pops into yours.


Joseph Sullivan founded and edited The Book Design Review, a blog which published over 1,100 posts related to graphic design and the book arts. Find him on Twitter @theBDR.

Share and enjoy!Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on Reddit

5 thoughts on “Joseph Sullivan: The Book Cover That Never Was”

  1. I’m not a graphic designer, but I’m competent enough with some tools. I’m working on a cover using the old Bell Gothic “phone book” font, to create a sliver of a page from the old White Pages, listing the main characters in alphabetical order, with “Infinite Jest” of course coming after the last “Incandenza,” and just the shadow of an impending dart…final landing location uncertain… It’s a reference to the “Found Drama” section of the book. I must be nuts since I spent $80 on a font for a book cover that will never exist, but it does feel like I’m getting with the spirit there.

    Also, not a fan of the eye-in-the-TV cover, it seems to say so little about the book other than to reference “The Entertainment,” and it feels somewhat derivative of Keith Haring. This “cartridge” fan version is my personal favorite:

  2. I’m disappointed in the new cover (and glad I got the excellent 10th anniversary design). The simple white cover with a single image reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell books or something on the business psychology shelves.

  3. Great post!
    The Italian edition also uses clouds:

    The Spanish edition has this photo, which makes no sense to me
    The German, UK, and French editions use type-only treatments, while the coolest looking foreign edition is the Brazilian Portuguese –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *