Then along came HTML, and what I remember most was that sense of being back inside the file. Sure, HTML was a typographic nightmare, a bunch of unjustified Times New Roman in 12 pt on screens with chiclet-sized pixels, but under the hood you could see all the pieces. Just like WordPerfect. That transparency was a wonderful thing, and it renewed computing for me. I was in my early twenties but there was such ennui—NeXT wasn’t catching on, Apple was crashing, and Microsoft was all paperclips. On the web, if something didn’t work, you could hop right in and tidy it up, and hit reload. And hit reload. And hit reload. I imagine I have hit reload five or six million times in my life. If you were to identify the single characteristic of a web person, it would be that their thumb and index finger have certain calluses where they press the command/control and “R” keys. Just thinking of reloading, my fingers instinctually go into a sort of crab-claw formation. I’m always ready to refresh.
Listening is a masochist endeavor. To do it right you have to put everything down. Not just your phone, even pen and paper. There is nothing to hold on to when you just listen. You have to use your full attention, registering everything that you see and hear. You have to slow down your self-perception and focus on the outside, on what you do not understand. Compared to how we usually operate, listening means focusing on pain, diving into boredom. In order to see the other in slow motion, you need to stop the camera of self-perception that makes you the star, and speed up the camera that records the outside.
Listening requires the patience to recognize your feelings in other people’s words, no matter how trivial, dark and empty their language may seem. It requires you to become someone else while you listen. The fog of boredom and emptiness when listening to people you don’t sympathize with can be a sign that they are boring, empty, or not making sense. It can also be a sign that you do not understand. Listening requires that you accept the nuisance of not understanding, of feeling deaf, blind, numb, and still pay attention. Listening is the first step of deep thought. It is painful to give yourself up, but it is highly rewarding. To fill the glass with fresh water, first empty it.
Working in Tails to remain anonymous while I developed the site, however, meant that this would be trickier than the web development I’d done in the past. I didn’t have access to the latest browsers I was used to, and I didn’t dare test the mobile version of the site on my smartphone. I also had concern that my coding style might betray my identity: my code for this project used similar commenting and naming conversions as other code I’d written in the past. Trying to develop software without your personal coding style is like trying to write an essay using someone else’s voice. I was also concerned that the visual designs I was creating could be compared to my work in the past.
I keep returning to Craig Mod’s fervent, potent ideas on what it means to be a part of the web, both as a citizen and as a large publisher:
I think this is why I have a certain amount of unease about Medium and writing for other spaces. Whenever I publish to my own little space on the web I get this feeling of adding to the greater corpus—no one might ever find it, no one might even ever read it (I removed Google analytics long, long ago so this might be the case), but linking to things still has a feeling of “a-ha! I see this!”
This is the first electronic general-purpose computer, the ENIAC, which was built at the University of Pennsylvania between 1941 and 1946. It was used extensively for Edward Teller’s early work on hydrogen bombs. The size of a couple of rooms, it had thousands of components and millions of hand-soldered connections.
The engineer Harry Reed, who worked on it, recalled that the ENIAC was “strangely, a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside. So instead of you holding a computer, the computer held you.”
(One remembers involuntarily and with goosebumps that in 1876–78, Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, First Earl of Lytton GCB GCSI GCIE PC (to whom, incidentally, Lady Windermere’s Fan was dedicated), serving as the Viceroy of India, considered himself to be doing well and doing good when he exported a record crop of grain from India to England while 5.5 million Indians died of starvation.)
[…] It serves me well by reminding me that mass anything is political. If one person is hungry, who knows, but if 50,000 people are hungry, what’s happening is necessarily a question of policy, of how we live together, of “who gets what, when, how”.
A first step, I think, is to remove any sense of inevitability. The Horn of Africa is not doomed to famines. It is prone to certain weather patterns that can lead to famine when other problems are also present. Which is true of everywhere. California is in a worst-in-1,200-years drought, but I am getting plenty of calories because, 😏🇺🇸 aside, we have mostly working politics. What’s happening in the Horn of Africa right now is worst-in-30-years, but there are likely people walking around today who will be dead of it before their next birthday. That’s a crop failure problem, and it’s a political failure problem.
Charlie Loyd’s newsletter, 6, feels like a masterclass on politics, environmental ethics and working in public.
William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well contains outstanding advice for writers, but the part I constantly think about is the section on editing:
Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unecessary word or phrase vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to replace a drab sentence to give it more rhythm or a more graceful musical line. With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.
“No,” he replied. Then, as if confiding a secret, he lowered his voice. “I acquired the book in a town out on the plain in exchange for a handful of rupees and a Bible. Its owner did not know how to read. I suspect that he saw the Book of Books as a talisman. He was of the lowest caste; nobody but other untouchables could tread his shadow without contamination. He told me his book was called the Book of Sand, because neither the book nor the sand has any beginning or end.”
The stranger asked me to find the first page.
I laid my left hand on the cover and, trying to put my thumb on the flyleaf, I opened the book. It was useless. Every time I tried, a number of pages came between the cover and my thumb. It was as if they kept growing from the book.
There are stories that appear to grasp all of my thoughts and loves and ideas right out of thin air and hurl them onto the pages of a book. These moments are few and far between but lately I had that very experience with You, a novel about video game design written by Austin Grossman.
It’s a book that appeared to jump into my bag unexpectedly as soon as I recognised the art style in the bookshop as the front cover was clearly adorned with an illustration from Superbrothers and of course I knew that a special something must lie inside.
You is the story of a games designer and the novel follows this character’s experience of working on a fictitious, open-world RPG for the Realms franchise. This is a series of games about hit points and Dark Elves, ancient mines filled to the rafters with orcs and endless fields sprinkled with wolves, thieves and the occasional ice giant. Yet besides these mysteries, within the code of the game itself lies a world-ending glitch that drives the design team to the brink of insanity; our protagonist must find the glitch before the game ships and save their creation from the quirks and eccentricities of the designer that came before them. It’s a video game murder mystery!
Although reading a book that finally gets what games are all about was terribly exciting, it was Grossman’s curiosity that’s bound up in You that had me on the edge of my seat:
Realms 1.0 was just the beginning: they would build and build into 2.0 and 20.0, into cities and kingdoms and systems within systems and interfaces within interfaces and princesses and starships and submarines and grassy fields and volcanoes and floating cities and laughing gods and blackest hells and on and on, because there would always be something else there over the next hill, beyond the turning in the road, down the dark hallway and into the next room, and somewhere in there you’ll escape at last, escape yourself and forget and forget and forget and live in a story forever.
The first time I played Oblivion, which is a very similar franchise to the fictitious world that Grossman describes, I wondered at the game’s potential, its infinite stories, its open, unbound freedom. For months the shared experiences of this game were cross-examined in friendly arguments and forums online; Oblivion could blossom with so many choices that we all questioned whether or not we had played some part in its design: would we steal that loaf of bread today or would we sneak out underneath the stars? Would we spend our mornings being chased by wooly mammoths and their giant companions, or would we instead choose to explore the sewers in the hope that we might stumble upon the contaminated lair of the Brotherhood?
As far as I can remember though, Oblivion was never a game which took itself very seriously: the designers were well-aware that the game was about orcs and demons and portals to hellish dimensions, and I’m reminded of it because Grossman captures this feeling precisely with his Realms series, too:
History progressed, blissfully free of historical or political or technological progress. Kingdoms rose and fell over the millennia, but there was no trend toward democracy, no Enlightenment, no industrial modernity, no Luther, no Hume, and absolutely, definitely no gunpowder. No Principia Mathemetica or Declaration of Independence. We held certain truths to be self-evident, but those truths were that elves hate orcs and wizards can’t wear metal armour.
The book also discusses the role of stories in video games, namely, how do you tell a great story without taking away the control of the player? Cutscenes! Level design! The benefits of using fire arrows over magic spells! It’s these sorts of ideas that are discussed in the book and we see the protagonist strip a video game to its most basic components in order to find out how he can put them back together in ways we’ve never seen.
For every high-cost producer out there getting squeezed by falling prices (which includes indies who have run up their living costs and/or operations costs), there are legions of people who have day jobs and enjoy writing in their spare time. There will always be avid readers out there who dream of writing their own stories. They don’t have New York skyscrapers to rent out. They don’t have assistants to pay. They didn’t quit their day jobs last year hoping their breakout sales will continue indefinitely. These are just the next generation of those who possess an active imagination, a dream, and the persistence to finish what they start.
Salman Rushdie’s musical opus, The ground beneath her feet, is one of a few select books that I want to slip into my friends’ backpacks, or hide in their bookshelf, or scatter copies under their beds until they must eventually concede. Later they’ll be reading on the train or on the road or under the sea only to find themselves basking in its warmth; The ground beneath her feet is a book that lets you drink bountiful, replenishing slurps from its innards wherever you are.
So much of the book is about belonging, whether or not that’s within the universe of art or society at large. Each character hopes to find where they belong and who they belong with:
We find ground on which to make our stand. In India, that place obsessed by place, belonging-to-your-place, we are mostly given that territory, and that’s that, no arguments, get on with it. But Ormus and Vina and I, we couldn’t accept that, we came loose. Among the great struggles of man—good/evil, reason/unreason, etc.—there is also this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey.
An excerpt from Rushdie’s autobiography is what led me to it a while ago, and it’s here that he describes the objectives of his work and how this idea of belonging ties into all of his books in one way or another:
I’ve been going back through Ftrain thanks to Paul Ford’s talk at XOXO, and there’s a wondrous archive bundled up in this old site of his—years and years of journal entries. This post about his grandfather’s funeral is particularly eye-popping:
Do you mind if I tell you, while I have your ear? All of this, the funeral, the family, the sudden reminder that life ends, it makes me realize how ignorant I am. I’m so sure I’m clever and sophisticated, a smug little agnostic, but put me face forward with death, and I don’t know my right from my north. All the rules for social interaction, all the solid clues and codes and handshakes sublimate into the air. Well-written proposals, a steady paycheck, making rent, building the next generation of web sites–these things don’t hold up next to death. Death blows them over like a hurricane through a shantytown.
In the talk, Paul also mentions a poem by the 13th century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi called the Guest House. It feels somewhat complimentary to what Paul wrote above:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes</br>
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
In 2006, I was drawn back into video games when Nintendo introduced a new system with intuitive motion controls and a quirky name, Wii. Nintendo projected the message that this new console was for everyone. Commercials featuring the tagline “Wii would like to play” showed families and friends of all ages. Nintendo’s console may not have been as technologically splashy as that of its Sony and Microsoft competitors, but it was deliberately designed and marketed to appeal to a wider audience — especially women and girls.
While it is easy to find images of scribes with a desk full of books, it is less common to encounter readers in similar situations. That is to say: there are very few medieval scenes in which someone is reading but not writing – where books are present but pens are not. In part, this has to do with medieval study practices. Readers would usually have a pen nearby even when they were just reading. After all, remarks and critiques needed to be added to the margin at the spur of the moment.
Alongside this post, it looks like there’s whole bunch of wonderful articles about reading and writing on the rest of Erik’s website. Adding this one to my ever-expanding RSS feed.
William Weaver, the translator of many of Calvino’s books, wrote this great piece about his relationship with the author:
Writers do not necessarily cherish their translators, and I occasionally had the feeling that Calvino would have preferred to translate his books himself. In later years he liked to see the galleys of the translation; he would make changes—in his English. The changes were not necessarily corrections of the translation; more often they were revisions, alterations of his own text. Calvino’s English was more theoretical than idiomatic. He also had a way of falling in love with foreign words. With the Mr. Palomar translation he developed a crush on the word feedback. He kept inserting it in the text and I kept tactfully removing it. I couldn’t make it clear to him that, like charisma and input and bottom line, feedback, however beautiful it may sound to the Italian ear, was not appropriate in an English-language literary work.
Here’s an interesting post by Tobias Frere-Jones about naming typefaces and how this process has evolved over the ages:
Tobias has only been writing on his blog since April but there’s already a wealth of fantastic articles building up. My favourites include his detective-styled writings on typographic neighbourhoods and his typewriter collection, both of which I’d heartily recommend if you like reading about type history.
“Every webpage is a latent community,” writes Clay Shirky in the most lucid piece of writing about Social Media™ that I’ve ever read. Yet despite its yawning blurb, Here comes everybody is not another book about the horrors of technology. Instead, it examines how the web influences congregations of people in a pragmatic and engaging manner; whether Shirky writes about the political, economic or the social side effects of technology, he always handles these issues with the careful study that they deserve.
In the extract below, Shirky details the many differences between television and the web, describing how our relationship with technology has dramatically influenced the personal relationships that we have with one another:
Television has millions of inbound arrows—viewers watching the screen—and no outbound arrows at all. You can see Oprah; Oprah can’t see you. On the Web, by contrast, the arrows of attention are all potentially reciprocal; anyone can point to anyone else, regardless of geography, infrastructure, or other limits. If Oprah had a weblog, you could link to her, and she could link to you.
As an almost-unrelated side note: I always find it strange when people talk about access to the web. According to a recent study half the population is offline, so internet access isn’t as democratic or universal as people might think – there are barriers people have to cross in order to gain entry. Or to put it another way, there are ‘arrows’ out there which are entirely unconnected to the others and are pointing in directions we can’t see.
Anyway, it’s particularly enjoyable when Shirky chronicles the significant cultural changes that the web has encouraged as well:
Love has profound effects on small groups of people—it helps explain why we treat our family and friends as we do—but its scope is local and limited. […] We are used to a world where little things happen for love and big things happen for money. Love motivates people to bake a cake and money motivates people to make an encyclopedia. Now, though, we can do big things for love.
For the next couple of weeks I’ll be chanting this whenever I stumble over any cynical or snarky moods which happen to sneak up and catch me by surprise. In fact, that last refrain – “we can do big things for love” – sounds like it should be adopted as the mantra of the Indie Web movement.
We are the Indie Web and we make big things for love.
I’m adding Peter Mendelsund’s book What we see when we read to the small pile of books that I’ll heartily recommend to everyone – it’s a meandering collection of thoughts about what happens during the act of reading. Unlike the title suggests however, the book is not in any way didactic or scientific, instead it overflows with questions and ideas, each illustrated in a way that lets the reader hover over the pages with glee. I’d rather not spoil the fun, since his book is endlessly quotable in every which way, but I do want to share this short extract:
River, the word, contains within it all rivers, which flow like tributaries into it. And this word contains not only all rivers, but more important all my rivers: every accessible experience of ever river I’ve ever seen, swum in, fished, heard, heard about, felt directly or been affected by in any other manner oblique, secondhand or otherwise. These “rivers” are infinitely tessellating rills and affluents that feed fiction’s ability to spur the imagination. I read the word river and, with or without context, I’ll dip beneath its surface. (I’m a child wading in the moil and suck, my feet cut on a river’s rock-bottom; or the gray river just out the window, now, just to my right, over the trees of the park—spackled with ice. Or—the almost seismic eroticism of a memory from my teens—of the shift of a skirt on a girl in spring, on a quai by an arabesque of a river, in a foreign city…)
A longer extract of the book can be found over on the Paris Review.
For one reason or another I had entirely forgotten about Matthew Buttericks’ excellent book Practical typography which he published last year and asked readers to pay whatever they wanted for it afterwards. In his latest update he described it as “an experiment in taking the web seriously as a book-publishing medium” so this weekend I cracked open my browser and tried to catch up on Matthew’s advice on the basics of typesetting.
Finishing a book in this environment feels so much more of an accomplishment than wrapping up a physical book, although it made for interesting reading because it was not written for upcoming graphic designers or art students (like the majority of typographic resources out there), instead this book’s aim had been calibrated specifically towards writers:
Think about that for a second, the idea that typography’s contribution isn’t merely an artistic embellishment, but an optimisation power-up, or even a performance hack. That’s why I was mesmerised with the act of design to begin with; I felt surrounded by sloppy typesetting made up of thin margins or the cheap paper stock, and it was these disabilties that just slowed the reading process to a crawl.
It’s impossible to talk about Practical typography without also mentioning the method of publication, a topic which Matthew carefully examines in his follow-up post. It’s here that he offers a few insights about how financially successful the project was, yet sadly the results don’t look particularly compelling for potential writers that want to follow a similar path.
But maybe it didn’t work out financially because of all sorts of issues other than those Matthew gave; perhaps as an audience we’ve devalued writing, or perhaps the problem is that torrential flood of competitors in the other tabs, or maybe the solution is an interface problem and we need additional web standards to ease the transfer of funds between patrons and creators.
What if we still need big publishers for their marketing power, or their ability to help sell advertisements in every corner of the screen? It’s difficult to even playfully consider that publishing’s last, wheezing hope is interactive adverts for diapers and viagra though. Wait – no, I’ve got it! Perhaps it was the lack of a book cover; a quick glance at Matthew’s book makes it hard to differentiate between his work and someone’s wonderfully typeset blog. And what’s up with his book being so bookish, anyway? Maybe readers are only attracted to writing that swarms with elements gyrating and bouncing all over the place as the user scrolls; parallax might be the future of publishing after all. The cynics will just have to get with the times and adjust to the complimentary motion sickness.
What about the word count in all this? Perhaps that sort of writing is untenable after a certain limit, or maybe this type of book is completely incompatible with our experience of browsers. Or maybe it was the release schedule that was the problem and the book should have been broken up into smaller chunks and published more frequently, rather than as a single lump.
Of course I’m just goofing around with these ideas because I’m scared of the alternative; that in the future these sorts of books might not be published at all.
At least half the excitement of writing a book today isn’t in the writing itself – it’s in all of these alternative disciplines which many writers tend to think of as burdens. It’s the design, the business model, the strange form of marketing that the web makes available to us. It’s even in the formats that we choose to support, for instance Matthew details why he doesn’t use proprietary formats, such as ebooks and .pdf’s. These are are all typographic, financial and technical burdens, but why should we stop there? Matthew even went so far as to build his own writing tool called Pollen because, he argued, that the “book is a program.”
And so maybe those burdens are too much for one writer to undertake on their own but learning about these adjacent fields empowers writers to improve their work considerably. I guess now I’m writing along those patronising lines of “all writers ought to master HAML, Sass and Node before they start their novel and then they should memorise all the quirks of InDesign during their degree in Graphic Communication before moving on to complete a doctorate in the field of X, Y, and Z.”
But then again, if those subsequent tools and complimentary bits of knowledge have the potential to make us better writers then why wouldn’t we experiment with them? I guess writers now have to try and figure out what’s a distraction and what improves their focus – is this programming language going to benefit my characters or the flow of this essay? Is this tool going to give me a new perspective on the publishing industry or will it just be a waste of my valuable time, moments which might have been better spent reading Shakespeare or learning how to illustrate my pop-up book for kids?
We’ll only find out if we’re willing to experiment a little.
Nicole Fenton has posted her notes of an excellent talk she gave on how to improve copywriting for interfaces. Sadly though I often tend to neglect lots of this advice, for example the bit where Nicole writes:
This talk carries on from Nicely Said, a book which Nicole co-wrote with Kate Kiefer Lee and where they both cling onto this branch of web design and reveal a host of issues that have bugged me for a long time as a reader. Sometimes these are issues that I couldn’t put into words properly but many of them were copywriting problems that I hadn’t even noticed consciously, problems that I merely felt as I used an interface.
Nicely Said is one of those rare books that whilst I was reading it I began wincing with embarrassment as Nicole and Kate revealed how many mistakes I’ve made over the years; it’s just the sort of book I would have killed for a year ago.
Over the weekend I read this great collection of advice for writers by Anne Lammot called Bird by Bird. The goal of this short little book is to help young writers learn more about the design and publication of fiction but, aside from the self-help format, what really caught my attention is this extract about encouraging other writers to join a community of like-minded folks:
In a short story called ‘To Reiterate’ from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis the author wonderfully describes her personal experiences of reading, writing and traveling whilst also taking apart dumb quotations and pithy statements in perhaps the best way possible:
Michel Butor says that to travel is to write, because to travel is to read. This can be developed further: To write is to travel, to write is to read, to read is to write, and to read is to travel. But George Steiner says that to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate. So that we may say: To translate is to travel and to travel is to translate. To translate a travel writing, for example, is to read a travel writing, to write a travel writing, to read a writing, to write a writing, and to travel. But if because you are translating you read, and because writing translate, because traveling write, because travelling read, and because translating travel; that is, if to read is to translate, and to translate is to write, to write to travel, to read to travel, to write to read, to read to write, and to travel to translate; then to write is also to write, and to read is also to read, and even more, because when you read you read, but also travel, and because traveling read, therefore read and read; and when reading also write, therefore read; and reading also translate, therefore read; therefore read, read, read and read. The same argument may be made for translating, traveling and writing.
Madness, Rack and Honey is a collection of lectures by the poet Mary Ruefle in which she contemplates the various struggles surrounding her art, and gosh darn it if this book isn’t endlessly quotable. I haven’t been able to put it down since as Mary eloquently captures, in so many ways, what it feels like to write about literature, poetry and the arts (especially when you’re forced to talk about all this stuff in a classroom). She writes:
After reading it I found that my copy was overflowing with notes and scribbles I’d made – every inch of every margin is filled with either !!!!’s or ????’s or woah’s. Every available space in the book is now an underline or a rushed, passionate note. In short: I’m beginning to think again, or perhaps reaffirm, that the mark of a truly great book is all of this excess material that couldn’t possibly make it to print – it’s that strange private/public experience between both reader and writer.
If a wonderful reading experinence mostly consists of all of those marks that you leave on a book before you place it back on its shelf, then this collection of writings by Mary Ruefle can certainly be described as one of my all time favourites. I highly recommend that you grab a copy and start contributing to those margins yourself.
Lately I’ve been reading a fabulous string of novels yet it’s made me feel a little guilty about ignoring the more science-oriented and fact-driven prose out there. So I’ve been making my first tentative steps into the field of physics with a book by Neil deGrasse Tyson called Death by Black Hole. It’s not so much a new body of work but a collection of previous writings, essays and stories about the heat death of the universe, string theory and, of course, what it feels like to get torn apart by the event horizon of a black hole.
The book makes for a nice introduction into a lot of these topics but my favourite section is where Tyson describes how scientists are baffled on a daily basis by the sheer complexity of the universe. It’s here where he describes how Richard Feynman compared the cosmos to a game of chess:
Richard Feynman, the celebrated twentieth-century physicist, humbly observed that figuring out the laws of physics is like observing a chess game without knowing the rules in advance. Worse yet, he wrote, you don’t get to see each move in sequence. You only get to peek at the game in progress every now and then. With this intellectual handicap, your task is to deduce the rules of chess. You may eventually notice that bishops stay on a single color. That pawns don’t move very fast. Or that a queen is feared by other pieces. […] Most scientists would agree that the rules of the universe, whatever they may look like in their entirety, are vastly more complex than the rules of chess, and they remain a wellspring of endless bafflement.
Last weekend I finally picked up Inside Paragraphs, a book by the illustrator and type designer Cyrus Highsmith. Essentially the book is a primer into the typesetter’s world, with the succinct writing being wonderfully complemented by the format of the book and the charming illustrative style. This combination makes it effortlessly recommendable for those just entering the field, chiefly since the book doesn’t overcomplicate things by focusing on those familiar, unnecessary distractions common to similar books about typography. Instead, Highsmith describes the core foundations of the topic in how we ought to think about these alphabetic puzzle pieces.
He begins with the invention of typesetting:
Johann Gutenburg of Mainz, Germany, is usually given credit for inventing movable type around the year 1450. This invention is the basis for the type we use today. Let’s imagine what Gutenberg might have been thinking. […]Gutenberg considered the counter space, letter space, and line space. Every paragraph, whether written or printed, has these white spaces in it. But they don’t have to be thought of in isolation. Gutenberg’s idea was to attach a certain amount of each kind of space to each letter. With this innovation he created a new kind of space: the glyph space.
I love this description for two reasons. First, Highsmith argues that Gutenberg didn’t just create the manufacturing process for printed typographic matter but designed an alternative typographic dimension with which to see these letters. Second, it makes type designers sound like intergalactic time travellers (which is sort of how I see them anyway).
Written by the prolific Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night examines the history, culture and religious circumstances surrounding the establishment of libraries, both public and private. Throughout what seems like a rather short book in hindsight, the author lovingly takes note of the various ways in which to design and maintain these paperback communities:
I heard about this wonderful little book via an impromptu gathering held by Contents magazine called The Library as Dinner Party, which led many of my Internet book chums to discuss it and share their notes. Though, for one reason or another, I held off on reading it until I stumbled over an old post by Mandy Brown a few weeks ago. The Library at Night propelled her to write about the current state of digital libraries, where she argued that the hardware/software dynamic we see today in ebooks is designed to solve the wrong problem entirely:
How do we design better shelves? Well, first we must learn about their physical compatriots, and so I can’t think of a better starting point than The Library at Night.
In Six Memos for the Next Millennium Italo Calvino outlines all of the attributes and properties of great writing that he believed ought to thrive into the distant future of literature. One extract which I particularly adore is from the topic of quickness where the author quotes Carlo Levi:
If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows—perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.
Trying to keep the number of book recommendations to a minimum is difficult when I keep stumbling over novels by Ellen Ullman (here’s my micro-review of her first book, Close to the Machine). This time though it’s The Bug, a story about programming, information theory and obsession.
The protaganist, Ethan Levin, begins to feel his life slipping away from him the more he encounters an elusive glitch in a piece of software. His emotional state spins out of control as he tries to deal with all sorts of problems that must be familiar to anyone working with code and large scale design systems; it’s how Ullman describes these unintended side effects that has caught my attention so firmly.
This small exchange between Ethan and another programmer explains so much of what I’ve experienced lately in working with a team (or should I say, this extract explains the team’s problem with me?). Ethan asks a colleague how a specific piece of code works:
Written by Fred Smeijers and published by the Hyphen Press, the second edition of Counterpunch is one of the most mesmerising books ever written about the early stages of typography and printing. Originally the author sets out to describe how type was manufactured in the 16th century; how small pieces of steel were filed down, shaped individually by goldsmiths, then used as printing material for well over a century (a process commonly referred to as punchcutting). But I found a thread in this book that went a little deeper than a discussion about old typographic practices, as wondrous as they might be.
You could say that Smeijers knows a thing or two about type, being the designer behind FF Quadraat and its companion sans serif, as well as the proprietor of the OurType font foundry. Some of his less popular, but no less brilliant type design work includes Renard, Arnhem and Fresco. But if you’re not familiar with his work it matters very little because Smeijers appears to show his talents through ever porous region of this book. From his elegant and yet to-the-point rhetoric on the topic, to Haultin, his custom typeface in use for this edition only, Smeijers draws a vivid picture of the constraints and technological innovations of the time.
The only thing that might reflect poorly on the design and work behind the book is the topic itself, as few activities can be compared to those of the sixteenth century punch cutter. Smeijers describes how these men hid in the cold and the dark, chiseling away at characters (sometimes as small as 6pt) for months on end. This book asks you to consider the determination of these characters and the sheer strength of will involved under such conditions.
Smeijers doesn’t want to elevate these craftsman however, he wants to understand them. He hopes to clear the fog between the present and the past so that we might better learn from their achievements or failures. However, due to the lack of technical material as well as enough trustworthy primary sources on the art of punchcutting, Smeijers was forced to take a more practical, hands-on approach with his research:
Although the book sets out to describe the act of punchcutting (and the dark art of the counterpunch) it vastly over delivers on this premise. Surely enough, it details those interesting and complex technical specifications and combines enough historical research of the now extinct punchcutter. But I think that the most important element of this book is the way in which it describes humanity’s entanglement with technology. Take these letters for example:
Around the time of Gutenburg’s invention in the fifteenth century, no calligrapher or scribe could make these sorts of letters, as the shapes were simply too complicated and inefficient to write quickly. In many ways, the letters that we see today are products of the machine. Soon enough, punchcutters stopped referencing the work of calligraphers and began discussing, copying and practicing the examples of other punchcutters. And the most fascinating insight, one that Smeijers returns to constantly throughout his book, is how design is a response to the limitations of people, not technology:
If you’re interested in this sort of thing then I highly recommend James Mosley’s article about type held in the hand. It’s a fantastic introduction to metal type and the period that follows where Counterpunch leaves off.
Not much needs to be said about this book by Robin Kinross. Once your eyes skim over the words Hyphen Press on the title page then you probably already know what to expect. Indeed, this small English publisher has made their consistently euphoric writings on typographic history almost commonplace (as can be seen in their back catalogue which holds some of the finest books on typographic history ever printed). But what stood out to me so brightly here is Kinross’ argument about making work public, about focusing on the impact that typographic theory had on its practice.
Since the beginning of the printing trade, the technology and application of certain techniques was seen as a dark art. It took several hundred years until people began to share this information about their work; fears of competition, of losing something that was theirs and the stagnant dialogue between tradesmen began to affect the progress of the community at large. Kinross describes the fascinating emergence of this conversation:
Kinross takes this idea further and into unexplored territory as he argues that modern typography had only begun with this articulation and blossoming of public consciousness, some 250 years after Gutenberg’s invention:
Oddly enough, those that shaped and defined the medium chose not to use it. Consequently their dark art lingered in illusive and uninviting circles for so many years. But I can’t help compare this to how web designer’s work in public today; the well-known and the familiar, from Chris Coyier, John Boardley and Jeffrey Zeldman, to the less prolific figures that share tutorials about the benefits of Compass and SASS.
Although similar to print in some ways, it seems that the web can only survive in the open – or under a finely tuned lens – and so each of us must record our pokings and proddings because we have a say in the future of a medium like no one else before.