Nottingham, UK

Book by Book

This peculiar article caught my eye last week. A reader of the Paris Review asks for advice about how to build their library and how to start reading the very best of literature; from all across the various classics over the centuries to the flood of modern authors, journalists and bloggers of today. But it was the demonstration of sheer thirst that stopped me in my tracks:

I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction?

Ultimately these sorts of questions shape how we read, so adjusting to the discrepancies and absences as a library grows is all part of the fun. By thinking about the genres or topics that we’re reading or the variety of authors (their gender, their ethnicity, their prominence in history or culture) we measure not only the current health of our bookshelves today, but we also start mapping our future libraries and fine tuning their voluminosity in the years to come.

The American writer and editor John Sullivan argues otherwise, however, as he believes that the planning comes secondary to the reading. In his reply to those questions he tries to put the reader’s mind at ease:

My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it.

This had me thinking about those articles that examine books, such as reviews, and how they’re deceptively useful. Most of my own library for example originated from links that I stumbled on whilst browsing the footnotes of a great article, or Twitter, or Instapaper or in blog posts by friends. Consequently it was with great pleasure that this article in the Paris Review inspired me to look back and answer some of my own questions about what we should read and when.

Recently I’ve found that a number of books have dipped in and out of conversations whilst others have managed to weave their way into my thoughts on a daily basis, almost involuntarily. I want to talk about those books here, those books that linger – permanent, sticky items of my library. Now they might not contain terribly practical advice or easy-to-apply steps or rules about the topic but they tend to push their individual conversations into places that I had no idea existed. Best of all, each of them in turn are written by brilliantly smart writers. So here goes…

The Gillette patent for the first razor

The Humane Interface

by Jef Raskin

Instead of icons explaining, we have found that icons often require explanation. If you wanted to obscure or encode an idea to keep it from prying eyes, substituting icons for words might not be a bad start. The interface presents an icon, but the meaning of the icon is not visible…

Focusing primarily on the psychological aspects of interface design and published all the way back in 2000, The Humane Interface is the best thing I’ve ever read about designing software. The author’s merging interests in design and philosophy captured my attention from the very beginning, as even when he disregards over zealous language in describing what an interface or a computer should hope to achieve, he appears to look for the underlying, philosophical roots of all this digital work.

From the use of icons and metaphors to habit forming commands and button gradients, Raskin expertly pinpoints the successes and failures of modern interfaces. Interestingly enough he also makes predictions in the book that are eerily close to the developments of recent years, but I’ll try not to spoil the book too much as I must have shouted “fuck yeah!” over a dozen times whilst reading it and so I leave the best bits to plunder for yourself, dear reader. For a primer into the work of this brilliant polymath, head on over to the wonderful and heartbreaking eulogy of Raskin’s life before you begin.

The typewriter that was patented by Thomas Oliver

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

by Italo Calvino

On the wall facing my desk hangs a poster somebody game me. The dog Snoopy is sitting at a typewriter, and in the cartoon you read the sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night…”. Every time I sit down here and I read “It was a dark and stormy night…” and the impersonality of that incipit seems to open the passage from one world to the other, from the time and space of here and now to the time and space of the written word; I feel the thrill of a beginning that can be followed by multiple developments, inexhaustibly; I am convinced there is nothing better than a conventional opening, an attack from which you can expect everything and nothing; and I realise also that this mythomane dog will never succeed in adding to the first seven words another seven or another twelve without breaking the spell. The facility of the entrance into another world is an illusion: you start writing in a rush, anticipating the happiness of a future reading, and the void yawns on the white page.

Published in 1971 by the Italian author Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel broken up into individual, loosely threaded tales about the missing chapters of a book. These tales weave their way in and out of the narrative whilst giving Calvino an excuse to joyfully describe his love of stories, books and most of all, the paradox that sits in the middle; how reading can be both an act of connectivity and isolation.

It’s a novel about storytelling, about words and characters and beginnings and how to thread a story together and where to cut the trailing fibers. It’s a story that’s told almost entirely in the second person and if I were to quote one section of the book I’d likely end up rewriting the entire thing, copying it all out word for word. To put it simply, the book is essential reading for anyone even mildly interested in telling stories.

A picture of a Chappe telegraph tower

The Information

by James Gleick

The invention of writing had catalysed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning — to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination — and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols. In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seems to be coming together.

Found in the stream of brilliance that is Mandy Brown’s working library, The Information is a history of data, machines and code. Gleick focuses on the innovative and spellbinding events of how communication has developed, but he also questions their knock on effects within a culture. Whilst If on a winter’s night a traveller focuses on the reading, this book primarily deals with all of the processes leading up to and surrounding it.

Unlike the previous books mentioned here though, The Information is much broader in scale and doesn’t solely examine a particular medium or format. The author dives head first into historical accounts and unsuccessful technologies and reveals so many useful insights for any designer, reader or general enthusiast to brain-munch on for months after reading.

An illustration of Thomas Babbage’s difference machine, widely believed to be the first computer

Close to the Machine

by Ellen Ullman

So I haven’t read this novel on programming and computers yet but I feel the need to talk about it since what I’ve read appears to share so many similarities with what I’ll read. The novel is written by Ellen Ullman, who was a programmer before she became a novelist, so her bio had peeked my curiosity before I had even heard of her book. But it was this excellent review by the writer and developer Paul Ford that’s pushed it to the top of my to-read list.

Here the writer describes how Ullman’s book encouraged him to think about the ties between human and computer languages:

Think of a book as a single string of data – a straight line of language from the opening sentence to the closing sentence, intended to create a reaction from its audience. This string made of words is punctuated with helpful symbols that have no innate meanings, but produce reactions in the reader (i.e. the period does not mean anything, but its pause can be meaningful in more ways than any word). The string is divided into arbitrary lengths called “pages”, which are in turn subdivided into “paragraphs” made up on “lines.” Creating one of these long strings is what we call “writing,” and making the book is “publishing,” except the two have been intertwined for centuries; the writer approximates the form of the book as she works, thinking in terms of arbitrary units – paragraphs, chapters, parts – which have only tenuous analogue in our day to day experience of spoken language.

Paul Ford, Getting Close to the Machine

How on earth can I avoid this book now? It seems that all of the books I’ve been reading lately have been swirling around this other book, caught in its gravitational field. Their common themes are tangled up in each other so strongly that, afterwards, I think a detour of some description might be necessary. Maybe something entirely different, like an unwieldy history of biology perhaps, or a brief side step around the field of astronomy, or a Frank Miller comic, or the Chip Kidd book about monkeys, or a…