The design of the New Yorker in 1985 could scarcely be more different. You don’t know, as you start reading a prose piece, how long it is — and it’s not easy to find out. You can flip the pages until you come to the end, but along the way you have to do rough calculations of how many words are on any given page, and that’s … well, it’s pretty much impossible, given the variability of the layout.
And if you don’t flip to the end, you don’t even know who wrote the damned thing. The writing is meant to speak for itself — or, perhaps more exactly, to speak for the judgment of the editors, which you are expected to trust.
Everything about the layout of the New Yorker in those days assumes a reader who reads the whole magazine, perhaps from cover to cover — a reader of leisure, a reader with intimate knowledge of and deep trust in the magazine itself. A reader of the kind that some of us once were.
“Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff. That’s partly true. (Reviewing the fifteenth edition of “The Chicago Manual of Style” for the magazine, in 2003, Louis Menand noted that “the decorums of citation are the arbitrary residue of ancient pedantries whose raisons d’être are long past reconstructing.”) Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.”
Nathan Heller looks at the the importance of footnotes.
This is especially interesting to me as I’m deep into Infinite Jest and continually amazed at David Foster Wallace’s various uses of footnotes.
The NYPL Labs (yes! the New York Public Library has a R&D lab!) has a great article on how they created scripts to make unique generated book covers for books in the public domain that don’t have real covers for an app they are working on:
My cover generator calls drawShape repeatedly for each character in a book’s title. The size of the shape is controlled by the length of the title: the longer the title, the smaller the shape.
Each letter in the title is replaced by a graphic and repeated as many times as it can fit in the space allotted. The resulting grid is a sort of visualization of the title; an alternate alphabet. In the example below, the M in “Macbeth” is replaced by a diagonal downwards stroke (the same character used to great effect in 10 PRINT). The A is replaced by a triangle (rather than the club found on the PETSCII keyboard). The C becomes a horizontal line offset from the top, the B a vertical line offset from the left, and so on. Since the title is short, the grid is large, and the full title is not visible.
Now when can we get generative covers for new books?
“It’s very rare that I’ll dislike a book, in its entirety, purely on aesthetic grounds. I always find something to like in any given book. I read all kinds of books in every possible genre, and derive all kinds of pleasures from the disparate flavors of these various reading experiences.”
“[O]ne of the human brain’s many tricks is that it automatically finishes unfinished things… If we see part of a circle, our mind closes it. If we see part of a word, our mind fills in the mssng lttrs.”
Book cover designer Peter Mendelsund (and one of my all-time favorite designers) has two books of his own (!!!) coming out next week and The New York Times has a nice profile on his work that includes this interesting section on his design process:
To come up with a cover, Mr. Mendelsund begins by scribbling notes on a manuscript and underlining key thematic sentences. He hangs the marked-up pages above his computer. Then he begins cataloging his ideas on a piece of paper covered with 16 rectangles, filling each one with a word, phrase or tiny sketch. He picks the most promising concept and creates a draft on the computer.
Once he has a rough design in place, he will often switch to illustrating by hand, drawing with an ink brush, layering on paper collage or filling in blocky shapes with gouache, a dense watercolor. Finally, he prints out a mock cover, wraps it around a hardcover and leaves it on his bookshelf for a few days. If his eye is spontaneously drawn to it a day or two later, he considers his direction on the right track. If the cover disappears into the background, he knows something is missing.
You can preorder Cover and What We See When We Read now so you have them when they release next Tuesday or read his essay Picturing Books, that served as the starting idea that eventual became What We See When We Read.
In Craig Mod’s newest piece for The Message on Medium (hehe), he shares his love for The New York Times’s newest app, NYT Now and talks again about the importance of edges and containers in our digital reading environments:
The physical paper used to provide the medium or frame into which the reporting culture of the Times could be embedded, but digitally that framing is lost. Carr’s beautifully described ‘rigor of form’ is what an app like NYT Now forces the Times to do to its otherwise formless 300 daily links.
While you can’t blame information overload as the only (or even main) culprit behind lost traffic on the Times’s homepage, it’s certainly one contributing factor. As we deal with increasing numbers of higher density information streams, one of the most respectful things a media organization can do for their readers is to create a clear hierarchy of information. Even better is to say, Here are the five things we really think you should peek at. You can do this any number of ways — implicitly through design or statistical ranking (e.g., Most Emailed), or more explicitly through human editorial selection. In mimicking a printed layout, the current homepage of the Times tries to apply the physical curatorial qualities of print (bounded and immutable) to a digital frame (boundless and always changing). As the numbers show, given a better or more digitally native entrance to the content, readers will take it.
Craig has written about edges before when Newsweek went digital only and this compliments my piece, Leaky Containers and Blurry Edges from November 2012 really nicely.
Also, if you haven’t been reading The Message, you really should as some of my favorite writers are looking at the state of media and where we can go. I’ve previously linked to Craig’s other piece on Snow Fall, just last week as well as Robin Sloan’s piece on using the television seasonal structure as a framework for storytelling. If you like the sort of things I post here, you’ll love each piece in The Message.
“I do not want to see a book business dominated by data because I prefer the old way, a book business run on the only metric that matters: love.”
Brett Victor’s reading tip on judging what you have read:
It’s tempting to judge what you read:
I agree with these statements, and I disagree with those.
However, a great thinker who has spent decades on an unusual line of thought cannot induce their context into your head in a few pages. It’s almost certainly the case that you don’t fully understand their statements.
Instead, you can say:
I have now learned that there exists a worldview in which all of these statements are consistent.
And if it feels worthwhile, you can make a genuine effort to understand that entire worldview. You don’t have to adopt it. Just make it available to yourself, so you can make connections to it when it’s needed.
To me, this feels like the perfect way to read—and live. I think you could apply this to conversations, arguments, and people.
Favorite Essays of 2013
If you’re like me, you probably have some time off over the next two weeks. Maybe you’re looking for something to read on a flight home for the holidays. Or maybe you just want to look at another end of the year list. In the spirit of all the above, I’ve put together a reading list of some of my favorite essays from 2013. These range from profiles on professors and musicians, essays on gentrification and urban development, to pieces on artificial intelligence and driverless cars. Think of it as a top ten list for essays. The list is fairly diverse so I’m sure you’ll find something of interest that you can spend reading over the holidays. Enjoy!
I recently finished reading Jennifer Egan’s brilliant novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad after Michael Rock included it on his Designers & Books list. Of the book, Rock says:
The most contemporary book on my list included primarily because I admire the complex structure of the narrative. Egan moves so deftly between time periods and genres that the intricacy of the interrelationships is almost not apparent at first. An extremely designed novel.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is almost diagrammatic in the way it reshuffles the chronological narrative and interlocks the plot elements. It’s both intricate and finely wrought. Egan also adopts a collage method where in she moves between various genres and tenses (and even includes a chapter written in PowerPoint).
Rock even had his students at Yale attempt to diagram it for one their projects, as shown above. When looking at that diagram, you can see how complex her structure is.
In an interview for Bomb Magazine, Egan uses Chuck Close as a metaphor for how he structured the novel—when viewed closely, it’s a series of short stories, but it is only when you pull away that you can fully understand the bigger picture:
I imagined the book was sort of like those art projects you do as kids when the teacher makes you put a grid over a drawing and every person in the class is responsible for a little square, you match them all together and then, Oh my God! It’s the same drawing. But in my mind, the way to do it was more of a Chuck Close painting, in that every small square was its own individual work, and yet they all added up to something bigger. I often actually have a visual idea of what I’m trying to do, which is odd because I’m not visual. I’m really a horrific draftswoman.
Four novels I want all my friends to read
2013 has shaped up to be my Year Of The Novel. Historically preferring nonfiction books, I’ve found myself reading more novels this year than previous years and my to-read pile is decidedly fiction lately, meaning the trend doesn’t appear to be ending soon.
Near the end of last year, I read Robin Sloan’s excellent debut novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore which set me on a search for more books like it. Since then, I’ve stumbled upon a few and I’ve loved each one in their own ways. These are decidedly modern stories—they are describing what it is like to live today, in 2013. They reference Google and Facebook and Apple. They are about working in technology but more importantly they are stories about the people behind that technology—they are people I relate to—people I know—working at start ups, living in New York and San Francisco, talking about typefaces, and growing up and falling in love.
These are four novels that have meant a lot to me in the last year. If we’ve talked in the last few months, there’s a good chance I’ve brought one of these up to you. They are stories that are familiar to me, that I can relate to in profound ways. I’m sharing them here because I think you’ll find them as engrossing and entertaining and thoughtful as I did.
“There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading.”
The New Yorker Profiles
When I lived in New York, I was a regular subscriber and reader of The New Yorker and would get excited every Monday to see it in my mailbox. I’d read it cover-to-cover on the trains to and from work but the Profiles—the weekly feature on a notable individual’s life—were always my favorite.
I tend to get obsessed with certain people—usually creative polymaths, of sorts—and devour everything I can about them. I realized today, while reading this week’s profile on Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey, that when I become interested in someone, the first thing I do is see if The New Yorker has profiled them.
I thought I’d share a few of my favorites from over the years. I naturally bend towards the creative and business people, but hopefully you’ll see a nice variety here. The best profile, in my opinion, is the one that I can’t stop reading but as soon as I’ve finished, I’m inspired to get up and work on my own craft a little bit harder than I did before.
Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:
“The writer comes across as so big-hearted, so in love with the world – the ancient world, the contemporary world, the hi-tech world, the world of yellowing scrolls, in love with love, in love with friendship, you name it – and the reader is swept along by his positive enthusiasm”