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”
“In other contexts such as film, literature, and theater, often criticism is the equivalent of reviewing recent works. In the context of the internet, what would a comprehensive review of a website or a new app consist of? How has it come to pass that “usability” criteria are framed through the protestant-corporate idiom of Jacob Nielsen—and still remain unchallenged? Can we popularize highly technical software reviews? What would form a good app review, beyond a description of its functionality?”
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates and the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”
A book is a book is a book
A book is words. But is it just words? No, it can’t be. It has to be more than words. If it’s just words then I’m making a book right now, with each word I sit here typing. Clickity clackety, type letter, type word, type letter, type word, book!
So a book has to be more than just words. Sometimes it’s pictures, I think. Sometimes, if you want to get really crazy, maybe it can have words AND pictures together! Woah. So can I put a video in my book? NO! Definitely not. Get videos out of our books, amiright? Sound? God, stop! That’s not even possible, silly. You can’t put videos and sounds on paper! And books are made of paper. With a spine and cover and pages you turn. Right?
Like a magazine! Pages. Spine. Words. Pictures. It has all the ingredients of what makes a book. Magazine, book. Book, magazine. A magazine must be a book. Huh? No! What are we saying, a magazine is most definitely not a book. Books don’t come in issues! What do you think we’re talking about comic..uhh…books? Wait. And what about Charles Dickens? His first books were published in monthly installments. Surely Charles Dickens wasn’t writing a book!
I read Alice and Wonderland on Project Gutenberg a few summers ago. A book, words, pages…made of HTML. Is that still a book? Can we get some HTML in our books? Is a website a book? The website I’ll publish this to has pages and words and pictures. Book?
And what about these e-books? Is an e-Pub file a book? E-pub can have video and sound. Is that still a book? Or is that an “e-book”? E-book is a silly term. We don’t call MP3s “e-music”; it’s just music. We don’t differentiate between formats. So what makes an e-book different from a book book? Why separate the formats? Is a book defined by its format or its content? The container or the substance? My head hurts.
Is a book a story? Does that exclude non-fiction? What if the story is five lines? Not-quite. Two pages? Too short? One hundred pages? Infinite Jest? How long does a story have to be to be a book? Is an essay a book? No, of course not. A collection of essays? Sure! Or is that a blog? Ugh. I don’t know what a book is anymore.
What is a book?
Marco Arment, writing a response to comparisons between the soon defunct The Daily and his new, seemingly successful The Magazine:
“Tablet-native” publishing shouldn’t mean any particular multimedia features or structures. True tablet-native publishing should mean using the freedom of modern platforms to break out of the idea that publications need to follow a universal mold. They’re all just software now, and a unified platform would only limit the possibilities.
There is no one way to do it right but perhaps what makes journalism (and all reading, really) exciting on the tablet is ignoring the legacies that came before and exploring the endless possibilities of building something for a brand new platform.
Blurry Edges and Leaky Containers
I recently purchased David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’ve been a fan of Wallace’s writing for a few years, mostly his non-fiction essays1 yet up until now, I didn’t have the courage to take the plunge into his magnum opus. Infinite Jest is a big book—coming in at 1104 pages, the paperback is almost two-inches thick. According to Amazon, it weighs two and a half pounds.
A book of that size commands attention—both mentally and physically. It has a mass and a weight. It takes up precious space on my bookshelf. My bookmark taunts me, always reminding me how much farther I still have to read. It’s intimidating. But it’s also not unapproachable.
And when I do finally finish, there’s a feeling of accomplishment. That space on my shelf now serves as an award of sorts, a medal of honor reserved for those who complete these two and half pounds of words. The bookmark comes out knowing I have read it all. It’s finished.
Travis Alber and Aaron Miller have written an excellent piece on the book as a social platform drawing from their experience building BookGlutton. They propose that books are—and have always been—a way to make connections; connections with ideas, with stories, and with others. Through the act of reading is often a solitary activity, from that interactions with others almost always occur:
It’s a lofty publisher who tries to look above the bottom line to ask the question: but how should books be read? And not only to ask that question, but to understand that it’s not merely a question of hardback or paperback, or Kindle vs. Nook. It’s not merely about whether a book will be an app, or whether it will be available in foreign territories simultaneous with its U.S. release. It’s not about Garamond vs. Bembo either, or the colophon or dedication, or who you can get to write the introduction. It’s not an experiential question at all; it’s entirely metaphysical, and it might even be better to start with the question: why do people read books?
We think there is a very simple but profound answer to that question: people read books to make connections. This can be considered at a cognitive level, through simple, repetitive pattern recognition, or at a conceptual, spiritual level. Either way, the basic work of the reader’s mind is to make connections, and the basic mode of higher thought is to exist both in and out of the physical world for a bit, drawing lines between the two.
"Every new book I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings. This does not come about without some effort: to compose that general book, each individual book must be transformed, enter into a relationship with the other books I have read previously, become their corollary or development or confutation or gloss or reference text."
—Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler
I’m moving to Brooklyn next week so my current apartment is in various states of disarray—the living room is empty save for a few boxes; the kitchen is cleaned and organized, each utensil and gadget categorized and placed in its respective box to make the move easier; the bedroom looks sparse, every surfaced washed of its life. Every surface except for the bookshelf.
I’ve been saving the bookshelf for last. If it wasn’t for my collection of books, I wouldn’t have much to pack at all. Aside of general living expenses, most of my money goes towards books. When I moved to New York a year ago, I had to decide what I could bring with me to my new, smaller apartment. My books automatically made the cut. I wanted to be near them, surrounded by them.
And now it’s time to pack them again to move across the river.
“My filmmaking education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and magazines, and with the new technology you can watch entire movies accompanied by audio commentary from the director. You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”
Paul Thomas Anderson (via austinkleon)
I learned more about graphic design by finding out who inspired the designers I like or read the book they read. Then I found out who those designers looked to or what books they read and would keep going farther and farther back, spreading out the range of inspiration wider and wider. It’s now been years since I haven’t had a book to read.
A fantastic piece Leon Wieseltier on the the book as an object, libraries, and reading. One of my favorite parts:
There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour.
I was thinking about this on my way home last week. I’ve been reading The New Yorker on the my train rides to and from work and as I turned the page, I noticed my sweaty finger smudged the ink on the page, dirtying my hand. “That doesn’t happen when I read on my iPad,” I thought, “Sometimes print is still better.”
Peter Mendelsund adds his own thoughts on the piece, and books in general:
But this piece of writing will not, after all, become part “of my biography” the way physical texts do, as it will invariably vanish into the uncultivated, undifferentiated, un-curated part of my brain reserved for the mass of digital information, mediated by screens, that flows untrammeled through my fractured awareness almost every waking hour of every day (I’m not saying this particular article deserves to be preserved. I’m just using it as a case study). That is to say: I will forget it. It is not, and cannot be, mine in any lasting respect. Sure–this article can be saved, in the same way my photos and my music are saved, to my hard drive. But every last article I’ve abandoned to those digital archives, just like all of those jpgs and mp3s similarly consigned, has become like Indiana Jones’s lost ark: buried in an infinite warehouse of infinite treasures, never to be seen or heard from again.
And concludes with a touching realization:
I’ve determined that the way I can best incorporate a digital artifact into my continued existence, for lack of a physical analog, is to share it. (which is what I’m doing now). This is how I will hoard it: I will give it out, then field the reactions. The sharing is the mnemonic- the preserving agent.
It’s harder to incorporate a digital artifact into our lives. We don’t mark up the pages, dog-ear the corners, let the pages get bent and dirtied—we can’t make it our own. But perhaps, the one thing we can do to inject ourselves into this digital artifacts is to share it, to make sure the text lives with us, but also lives on past us.