Ubiquitous book design

Noticed something blobby these days? (No, not that one.)

Behold, the book blobPRINT Magazine
This design trend, well into its third or fourth year in the major publishing houses, has attracted plenty of nicknames and attendant discourse online—culture critic Jeva Lange calls it “blobs of suggestive colors,” while writer Alana Pockros calls it the “unicorn frappuccino cover,” and New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka once referred to it on Twitter as “the Zombie Formalism of book covers.”

As the article goes on to say, spotting such trends in book cover design is far from breaking news.

Why do so many book covers look the same? Blame Getty ImagesEye on Design
This summer, Morrison, who goes by Caustic Cover Critic at his @Unwise_Trousers Twitter account, posted a collage of 20 Fog Men on 20 book covers. They comprised but one subset of a folder on his computer, titled, “One Image, Many Covers.” Over a few mid-June days, he emptied that folder all over Twitter, drawing the attention of authors, designers, and readers alike. Among the members of the One Image Many Covers All-Star Team: Some askew knees (three covers); a 1933 George Hoyningen-Huene photograph of model Toto Koopman in evening wear (eight covers); a woman expressing despair on the prairie (10 covers); a spectral, Victorian-ish lass toting an empty birdcage (10 covers); a top-hatted man lurking in the middle distance alongside a wrought iron fence (nine covers); a naked woman asleep on gravel (11).

That was from 2019, this next article is from 2015.

Why do so many of this year’s book covers have the same design style?Slate
But lately, another cover design trend has been popping up on this summer’s crop of beach reads: the flat woman. Inspired by the “flat design” that’s become standard on the Web, these covers take on a minimalist style characterized by bright colors, simple layouts, and lots of white space. Several different designers and publishers have used this approach on hardcovers and paperbacks alike, especially those aiming for the upmarket-but-still-commercial-fiction-for-ladies sweet spot.

And this one’s from 2008.

Chick lit cover girls, without headsGawker
On one hand, we can understand obscuring the faces—it’s less specific and makes the female protagonist easier to project oneself onto. (It’s probably been focus-grouped to death.) On the other hand—they look weird when put all together in a gallery, don’t they?

Making a very slow splash

There’s slow TV, then there’s really slow TV.

The Slow Mo Guys usually shoot their videos at 1,000 frames a second and play them back at 25 frames a second, in effect stretching one second into 40 seconds. But in this video they’re using a camera that allows them to shoot a mind-boggling 90,000 frames a second. When that footage is played back at 25 frames a second, one second lasts one whole hour.

The Slow Mo Guys: What if every second lasted an hour?YouTube
Gav shows you the tranquil results of stretching every second to be an hour long.

At this speed, a minute would last two and a half days, an hour would last about five months, and a day would come in at just under a decade, at nine years and ten months. Shall we keep going? A month would last around three centuries, and a year would be about 3,597 years.

Interesting visuals, for sure, but that concept of experiencing time at different scales is captivating.

Does anyone else get slightly filled with dread imagining how bad it would be to be stuck at this speed. Even if you were surrounded by people you wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. It would be so lonely. It would take you so long to move anywhere. You wouldn’t be able to let anyone know what was happening to you. To them you’d be moving at normal speed but acting strangely…

It immediately brought to mind one of my favourite Borges short stories, The Secret Miracle, with the playwright facing a firing squad.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Secret MiracleSCASD [pdf]
The rifles converged upon Hladik, but the men assigned to pull the triggers were immobile. The sergeant’s arm eternalized an inconclusive gesture. Upon a courtyard flag stone a bee cast a stationary shadow. The wind had halted, as in a painted picture. Hladik began a shriek, a syllable, a twist of the hand. He realised he was paralyzed. Not a sound reached him from the frozen world.
He thought: I’m in hell, I’m dead.
He thought: I’ve gone mad.
He thought: Time has come to a halt.

It’s a common enough device, but Borges does it most poetically, I would say. But going back to that video, here’s what falling into a pool for an hour looks like. The action really kicks off at the 26 minute mark.

Reminds me a little of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Pyscho although that feels like watching a rollercoaster compared to this.

But think of the trees

I’m a big fan of the photographer/designer/writer/walker Craig Mod, so it was great to read an interview with him in a recent Why Is This Interesting newsletter.

The [Tuesday] media diet with Craig ModWhy is this interesting?
Describe your media diet. Internet goes off before bed. No internet until afternoon. Mornings are for reading books and writing. I try to limit news to smart speaker updates — “Hey Googs, what’s the latest NPR news?” — since there is a natural backstop (the update ends) and it’s impossible to get sucked into hours of news gaping this way. Books, I read 50/50 on a Kindle/paper. Kindle is usefully quick and dirty although I despise the ecosystem. Any book I love enough to finish on Kindle I immediately buy the paper version for my library. Longform articles usually get sent to my Kindle or printed out for reading later since I find focusing on a long-form essay in a browser is akin to self-waterboarding. Mediums definitely matter! And if someone spent a great deal of time on a 5,000-word essay for NYT Magazine or The Atlantic, I want to make sure I’m fully there (full attention, full focus) for the ride.

Whilst I love his writing on reading and book design, I’m not sure about that “Any book I love enough to finish on Kindle I immediately buy the paper version for my library” line. I have so many great books on my Kindle that I’ve really enjoyed, and I would struggle to justify buying hundreds of paperbacks just to see them lined up on my bookcase.

Who am I kidding I’d love to do that.

Reading: the how, what and why

Across three essays for Literary Hub, one of my favourite authors, Will Self, ponders big, bookish questions.

Will Self: How should we read? In praise of literary promiscuity in the digital ageLiterary Hub
To read promiscuously is to comprehend the caresses of one work in the arms of another—and the promiscuous reader is a pedagogue par excellence. How should we read? We would read as gourmands eat, gobbling down huge gobbets of text. No one told me not to pivot abruptly from Valley of the Dolls to The Brothers Karamazov—so I did; anymore than they warned me not to intersperse passages of Fanny Hill with those written by Frantz Fanon—so I did that, too. By reading indiscriminately, I learned to discriminate—and learned also to comprehend: for it’s only with the acquisition of large data sets that we also develop schemas supple enough to interpret new material.

So many books, so little time — so just keep going!

Will Self on what to read: Canons to the left, canons to the right, and everything in betweenLiterary Hub
All of which is by way of saying: read what the hell you like. In a literary culture in which a Booker Prize winner (Bernadine Evaristo) can give an interview to the Guardian newspaper in which she states that “life’s too short” for her to read Ulysses, clearly the old idols have fallen. But then, they haven’t been the old idols for very long. No, read what you want—but be conscious that in this area of life as so many others; you are what you eat, and if your diet is solely pulp, you’ll very likely become rather… pulpy. And if you read books that almost certainly won’t last, you’ll power on through life with a view of cultural history as radically foreshortened as the bonnet of a bubble car.

And here, he compares the move from social reading to private, silent reading with the shift from the hefty codex to the hand-sized screen.

Why should you read? Will Self wonders what the hell we think we’re doingLiterary Hub
In the current era the dispute between those who view the technological assemblage of the internet and the web as some sort of panacea for our ills, and those who worry it might herald the end of everything from independent thought (whatever that might be), to literacy itself, has a slightly muted feel. I suspect the reason for this is also to be found in Understanding Media: as McLuhan pointed out, the supplanting of one medium by another can take a long time—and just as the practice of copying manuscripts by hand continued for centuries after the invention of printing, so solitary reading—conceived of importantly as an individual and private absorption in a unitary text of some length—persists, and will continue to endure long after the vast majority of copy being ingested is in the form of tiny digitized gobbets.

It’s books all the way down

Here’s another bookish sculpture to go with the others I found a while back.

Idiom installationAtlas Obscura
For bibliophiles, an infinite tower of books is a nightmare disguised as a dream—a huge collection of literature that you can’t get at because pulling a book or two out will cause the collapse of the tower. But it does make for a wonderful sight.

A real-life iteration of this dream-nightmare is on display at the Prague Municipal Library. Artist Matej Kren’s “Idiom” is a long-term art installation where hundreds of books are stacked in a cylindrical tower. Mirrors placed at the bottom and the top give the exhibit the illusion of being infinite. A tear-shaped opening on one side of the tower allows visitors to peek in and experience what it would be like to drown in a book well.

You should definitely pop into the Prague Municipal Library if you’re passing by.

Matej Kren’s ‘Idiom’Awayn
Located quite centrally, it’s a fun five minute stop to get some fresh photos and look at the book tower. Though it’s a lovely way for people to step into the building, you don’t have to go too far into it, so you don’t disturb anyone who goes for the actual library. As you come in the main entrance, it is literally in front of you; need to walk upstairs.

Here are some more photos of this little/infinitely large landmark. (via)

A new breed of robots?

Robots have fascinated us for years, but are we looking at them all wrong? Kate Darling, robot ethicist at MIT Media Lab, shows us a different way.

Robots are animals, not humansWIRED UK
Automation has, and will continue to have, huge impacts on labour markets – those in factories and farming are already feeling the after-shocks. There’s no question that we will continue to see industry disruptions as robotic technology develops, but in our mainstream narratives, we’re leaning too hard on the idea that robots are a one-to-one replacement for humans. Despite the AI pioneers’ original goal of recreating human intelligence, our current robots are fundamentally different. They’re not less-developed versions of us that will eventually catch up as we increase their computing power; like animals, they have a different type of intelligence entirely. […]

While there are many socioeconomic factors that influence how individual countries and societies view robots, the narrative is fluid, and our western view of robots versus humans isn’t the only one. Some of our western views can be directly attributed to our love of dystopian sci-fi. How much automation disrupts and shifts the labour market is an incredibly complicated question, but it’s striking how much of our conversations mirror speculative fiction rather than what’s currently happening on the ground, especially when our language places agency on the robots themselves, with pithy headlines like “No Jobs? Blame the Robots” instead of the more accurate “No Jobs? Blame Company Decisions Driven by Unbridled Corporate Capitalism”.

Comparing robots to animals helps us see that robots don’t necessarily replace jobs, but instead are helping us with specific tasks, like plowing fields, delivering packages by ground or air, cleaning pipes, and guarding the homestead. … [W]hen we broaden our thinking to consider what skills might complement our abilities instead of replacing them, we can better envision what’s possible with this new breed.

The New BreedPengiun
Kate Darling, a world-renowned expert in robot ethics, shows that in order to understand the new robot world, we must first move beyond the idea that this technology will be something like us. Instead, she argues, we should look to our relationship with animals. Just as we have harnessed the power of animals to aid us in war and work, so too will robots supplement – rather than replace – our own skills and abilities.

We’ve seen what happens when you add technology to animals, but this other way round sounds much more promising. One to add to the to read list.

Van Gogh, his sisters and the NFTs

I missed Van Gogh’s birthday last month, again. I meant to post these links earlier.

Warrior artistDublin Review of Books
Anyone who dips into Van Gogh’s letters will be struck by how much and how widely he read. He devoured and used books up as he did the people around him, though he never used people in a malicious way. It was just that few could match or live up to his passionate intensity. As Mariella Guzzoni, an independent scholar and art curator, writes: “It should be said . . . that though Vincent cherished books, he was not a book collector. More precisely, he was a book-user. For him, it was not important to physically possess books, but to make them his own.”

There’s more to his story than just him, though.

The woman who made Vincent van GoghThe New York Times
Twenty-one months after her marriage, Jo was alone, stunned at the fecund dose of life she had just experienced, and at what was left to her from that life: approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by her brother-in-law.

The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh.

It’s a fascinating read, his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger was remarkable. Here’s a photo of her from around 1909.

And there were other important women in his life too.

The fascinating lives of Vincent van Gogh’s three sistersHyperallergic
Vincent van Gogh’s three sisters — Willemien (Wil), Elisabeth (Lies), and Anna van Gogh — are highlighted in the historical biography The Van Gogh Sisters by Willem-Jan Verlinden (Thames & Hudson). The book was originally published in Dutch in 2016; the English version, translated by Yvette Rosenberg and Brendan Monaghan, includes previously unpublished letters, largely the result of research completed after the Dutch version was first released.

Through letters between the siblings, we read that Lies was frustrated that women didn’t have more professional options that were socially acceptable. We learn about how Wil often copied Vincent’s drawings and was his favorite model, and that the two wrote to each other about art and literature and inquired about one another’s mental health. The book draws you in with stories about the siblings’ pursuits of jobs, love, and artistic curiosities, as well as lush portrayals of each family home.

How Van Gogh paid for his mentally ill sister’s care decades after his deathThe Guardian
Vincent van Gogh remained penniless throughout his tragic life, which ended in suicide shortly after a stay in a mental asylum. Yet two decades later, paintings he had given to his sister were sold to pay for her stay in a psychiatric hospital, commanding such high prices that the proceeds funded years of treatment, according to letters published in a new book.

Willemien, the youngest of Van Gogh’s three sisters, shared his love of art and literature and, like him, struggled with her mental health. While Van Gogh was committed to an asylum after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute in a fit of madness, his sister was institutionalised for almost 40 years until her death in 1941.

In 1909, the oldest sister, Anna, wrote of selling a picture that he had given Willemien, enabling her to pay for medical costs: “I remember when Wil got the painting from Vincent, but what a figure! Who would have thought that Vincent would contribute to Wil’s upkeep in this way?”

Speaking of selling Van Goghs, here’s a very realistic/utterly fake portrait of him by the ‘post photographer’ Bas Uterwijk that’s for sale.

I’ve shared a link to his AI-generated portraits before, but now several are for sale as—yes, you’ve guessed it—NFTs. (He’s not the only one, of course.)

I’m still struggling with all this, to be honest. Am I right in thinking that I can spend 20 Tezos (about £100) on something that’s exactly the same as the 1620×2048 .png file I can download if I right-click on the image on the webpage?

Another new world: NFTs aren’t just for cats anymore. What do they mean for digital art?Rhizome
The NFT boom has been a kind of revelation. It should always be the case that artists can keep the wolves from the door and have their creative labors validated, even when the result is a digital file, but the market has never really supported this; the idea that it’s even possible feels revolutionary.

At the same time, the NFT backlash has been furious. Highly visible NFT evangelists make unrealistic claims to be freeing artists from the problems of institutional gatekeepers, but there are clearly still problematic dynamics of race, class, power, and gender that shape these markets too, and artists still find themselves partly reliant on social media platforms and traditional institutions to build audiences and accrue value for their work.

As we’ve already seen, none of this is straightforward.

NFTs are shaking up the art world. They may be warming the planet, tooThe New York Times
“The numbers are just crushing,” he said from his studio in Pfarrwerfen, Austria, announcing that he was canceling his plans, one of a growing number of artists who are swearing off NFTs, despite the sky-high sums some have fetched at auctions. “As much as it hurts financially and mentally, I can’t.”

It wasn’t meant to be like this, obviously. Here’s Anil Dash, the man behind the technology.

NFTs weren’t supposed to end like thisThe Atlantic
The idea behind NFTs was, and is, profound. Technology should be enabling artists to exercise control over their work, to more easily sell it, to more strongly protect against others appropriating it without permission. By devising the technology specifically for artistic use, McCoy and I hoped we might prevent it from becoming yet another method of exploiting creative professionals. But nothing went the way it was supposed to. Our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype.

It seems to me that the broken art market is still far from being fixed. I wonder what the folks at Sedition make of all this.

Pattern recognition

I enjoyed the serendipity of hearing about Adam Curtis’s new documentary series on (amongst many other things) our fascination with conspiracy theories at the same time as being sent a Kindle discount voucher for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I haven’t re-read that in years, perhaps now would be a perfect time.

Finding our digital selves

I’m a big fan of the work of Joanne McNeil and Jenny Odell. I guess the all-knowing Google must have picked up on that somehow, which was why YouTube recommended I watch this video of the two of them, plus others, on a panel discussing social media. The event was organised by the Second Life Book Club, and was what prompted me to resurrect my long-forgotten account last week.

Second Life Book ClubSecond Life
Meet book authors and discuss your favorite books at the Second Life Book Club, a series of literary-minded events. Draxtor Despres will bring established as well as up-and-coming authors, poets, publishers, and indie store owners together for virtual book discussions.

Previous shows are on this YouTube playlist, and news of the next ones are on this events calendar maintained by the host, Bernhard Drax (Draxtor Despres in SL), one of the people behind this award-winning documentary.

Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is MeYouTube
Filmmaker Bernhard Drax travels from Los Angeles to rural South England to explore why people ranging from 24 to 92 years of age find solace and inspiration in a user-created digital wonderland that only exists inside their computers. Drax sends his documentarian avatar Draxtor Despres into the virtual universe of Second Life as well as next generation VR platforms like High Fidelity and Sansar where he meets a 40-something disabled Chicago native feels best represented by a colorful superhero gecko and Cody LaScala – confined to a wheelchair his entire life – who makes his avatar an exact replica of his physical self.

Here are some crappy pics I took from last week’s Book Club event, with the sci-fi writer Julie Novakova. It’s all really piqued my interest in digital identities again, though I feel like such a newbie.

Things are looking up #6

I’m sure President Biden has enough on his to-do list at the moment to be giving Space Force and the politics of space much thought, but this new book from Benedict Redgrove might spark some enthusiasm.

Benedict Redgrove’s intimate photography book lands us inside the world of NASAIGNANT
Redgrove has been fascinated by space suits and shuttles since he was a young man. “The image of the astronaut or spaceman has been with me ever since, as a sort of talisman to all that is great and good,” he shares. “They symbolize the explorer, the hero, the good character, the leader. The spacesuit takes on that character, the suit and the human become one entity, more powerful than either on their own.” Combining his fascination with space technology with his interest in photography, the British creative took on the challenge to document America’s home of space-based research and development in intimate detail. Redgrove spent almost a decade working on the project, negotiating access and forming relationships with NASA, researching, investigating, and producing over 200 images of NASA’s facilities and the many objects that made their space travel imaginable and possible.

The engineering involved in landing on the moon was incredible. To fully appreciate that, I think I need to add this epic piece of journalism to my reading list.

Of a Fire on the Moon by Norman MailerPenguin Random House
For many, the moon landing was the defining event of the twentieth century. So it seems only fitting that Norman Mailer—the literary provocateur who altered the landscape of American nonfiction—wrote the most wide-ranging, far-seeing chronicle of the Apollo 11 mission. A classic chronicle of America’s reach for greatness in the midst of the Cold War, Of a Fire on the Moon compiles the reportage Mailer published between 1969 and 1970 in Life magazine: gripping firsthand dispatches from inside NASA’s clandestine operations in Houston and Cape Kennedy; technical insights into the magnitude of their awe-inspiring feat; and prescient meditations that place the event in human context as only Mailer could.

Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon: a giant leap for reportageThe Guardian
In the age of Gravity, of simulated cinematic immersion in space, it is more striking than ever that footage of the greatest technological feat of all time looked no better “than a print of the earliest silent movies … Ghost beckoned to ghosts and the surface of the moon looked like a ski slope at night.”

That line about the poor quality visuals (deliberately poor, apparently) not matching the scale of the achievement reminded me of Brian Eno’s dissatisfaction with the audio, the chatter of the experts obscuring the event’s grandeur and strangeness.

Of a Fire on the Moon was first published across three issues of Life magazine (much like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, published in its entirety in The New Yorker in 1946), and is yours in book form for a tenner or so. Or, if you want to spend a little more…

Of a Fire on the Moon; $112,500 coffee table editionWikipedia
The 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing was marked in 2009 by the release of an abridged, limited edition of the text, re-packaged with images from NASA and Life magazine. This production retitled the work, MoonFire, and was presented in an aluminium box with a lid shaped like the crater-pocked surface of the Moon; the object was mounted on four legs resembling the Apollo Lunar Module’s struts. Thus, the coffee table book came inside its own lunar-themed “coffee table”, with an uneven surface (see photograph). The package included a numbered print of the famous portrait of Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon, framed in plexiglass and signed by the astronaut himself—and enclosed a lunar meteorite. Only 12 were created and the price was $112,500.

Here’s Johnny!

William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic first appeared in Omni magazine in 1981, before being published in his Burning Chrome collection in 1986. It takes place in the same world of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive and, in the 1995 movie at least, starts on 17 January 2021.

Johnny MnemonicMuseum of Arts and Design
Artist Robert Longo’s directorial debut, Johnny Mnemonic adapts for the big screen William Gibson’s story of the same name. Set in a dystopian 2021, when megacorporations rule the world, the movie features Keanu Reeves as Johnny, a “mnemonic courier” who discreetly transports information too sensitive to carry over the Net via a special device implanted into his brain—a career that’s cost him his childhood memories. Hoping to recover them through an expensive surgery, Johnny agrees to one last job, which requires him to download more information than his implant can handle.

2021 and the conspiracies of Johnny MnemonicWIRED
Johnny is a digital-era delivery guy. If you need some data transported hypersecurely, simply load it into his head and off he goes: your very own walking—more often running, from bad guys—USB air-gapped meatstick. So what if the gig comes with memory lacunae and the risk, in the event of information overload, of brain-burst, to say nothing of the Yakuza at your back, who are more than happy to carry out a file transfer by way of decapitation? It pays well, and you look cyber-cool doing it.

Gibson’s cyberspace was always bound up with the body. Data can be wet-wired; manipulating files requires Power Gloves and an “Eyephone.” When Johnny jacks in, it kind of hurts. Such meat-meets-metal has, in the quarter-century since Johnny Mnemonic came out, been called a failure of prediction. Our internet ended up disembodied, virtualized, socially distanced, our iPhones more of a figurative prosthesis. Yet, this last year, we sat slack at our desks, muscles atrophying, nerves attenuating, as we doomscrolled our way to new aches, new anxieties, new ailments. Some wild-eyes went so far as to claim that 5G triggered the pandemic, which is the most Gibson-sounding conspiracy of all. In Johnny’s world, the black shakes are caused not by a virus but by a signal. Epidemic through technic. There’s something in the air, no matter what you do. You’re already sick, you’re already dying. Connectivity is killing you.

Looking back at Johnny MnemonicDen of Geek
Really, it’s pretty difficult to figure out exactly why this film doesn’t live up to the brilliance of Gibson’s material, and why it didn’t find a wider audience. It may be down to the studio’s interference – allegedly, the film was re-cut shortly before its release, to be more mainstream; Gibson himself attests that the rough cut was funnier and more alternative. It may also be that the general cinema-going audience may not have known what to make of it – it was science-fiction, yes, but without the usual tropes they might expect of the genre. Virtual reality had also been done before, and Johnny Mnemonic’s cyberspace sequences are similar to those seen in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, and 1995’s Virtuosity also played around with the concept a few months later – really, audiences were promised nothing new. And, of course, nobody knew The Matrix was only four years away, which would redefine the way in which simulated realities had been presented in films forever.

Can technology make you sick, like ‘NAS’ does in Johnny Mnemonic?Syfy Wire
The real risk of exposure to technology might exist not in the technology itself, but in our relationship to it. It’s true that excessive internet usage is linked to depression. What’s unclear is which factor is the instigator. One interpretation of the data suggests that excessive internet usage causes depression. This makes intuitive sense as the information most readily available online is overwhelmingly negative. Another interpretation is that those predisposed to depression exhibit higher internet usage. […]

NAS or the Black Shakes, the physiological disease showcased in Johnny Mnemonic, has yet to rear its head, but the psychological impact of constant information demanding attention can have real consequences. And we all need to be aware of where we devote our attention, what society is demanding from us, and how we navigate an ever-changing and increasingly digital landscape.

So much to read, so little time #2

Get any good books for Christmas? I got the obligatory gift voucher, just trying to decide what to spend it on now.

The best books of 2020Kottke
Let’s start with the NY Times. Their 10 Best Books of 2020 includes Deacon King Kong by James McBride while their larger list of 100 Notable Books of 2020 has both Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff and The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack on it. The Times’ critics have their own list for some reason; one of the books they featured is Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley.

I came across that last one back in February, still not got around to it. I’m in good company, at least.

Building an antilibrary: the power of unread booksNess Labs
For Umberto Eco, a private library is a research tool. The goal of an antilibrary is not to collect books you have read so you can proudly display them on your shelf; instead, it is to curate a highly personal collection of resources around themes you are curious about. Instead of a celebration of everything you know, an antilibrary is an ode to everything you want to explore.

But that doesn’t help me pick what to get with my voucher, does it?

Help us pick the best book cover of 2020Electric Literature
This hasn’t been an easy year for sustained, careful reading. But you know what doesn’t take any attention at all? Judging a book by its cover! That’s why we’re doing our first ever “best book cover of the year” tournament—and we want you to weigh in.

These were their finalists. Which one do you think won? I think they made a good choice.

Will it Stand up?

Stephen King, author of 70+ novels and short story collections, is almost as famous for the 30+ adaptations of his stories as for the books themselves.

America’s dark Disney: How Stephen King conquered the screenThe Independent
“There are conventions and stylistic choices that he makes in his work that tap into a very core sense of the human psyche,” Apicella explains. “You’re willing to go into this crazy paranormal stuff, because at the heart of it is something we’ve all experienced, whether it’s coming of age, or financial hardship. He’s brave enough to unpack what frightens us in the most extensive and imaginative way.”

Back in 2017, I set myself the task of reading Stephen King’s It again, after a 30 year gap, before I saw the latest version with Bill Skarsgård and co. In fact, the original driver was to re-read the book before I read this wonderfully cutting/draining book review/reading journal, before I saw the film.

Reading Stephen King’s It is an exhausting way to spend a summerThe Verge
Now is probably a good time to point out that Stephen King is out of control. There is no way an editor even glanced at this book before it was published. It took 350 pages for the seven main characters (too many!) to individually meet the central monster and then collectively acknowledge its existence, and we frequently took extended breaks to talk about architecture.

But by the time I finished the book, I had had my fill of it and didn’t bother watching the film. And still haven’t. I might get round to it.

Anyway, I only mention this now as it’s just happened again.

Wanting something hefty to read during the first coronavirus lockdown this summer I turned to King’s The Stand, that cheery tale of survival in a post-pandemic world that I first waded through in the late 80s. It seemed to be the right thing to do.

Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary historyThe Conversation
Literature has a vital role to play in framing our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worth turning to some of these texts to better understand our reactions and how we might mitigate racism, xenophobia and ableism (discrimination against anyone with disabilities) in the narratives that surround the spread of this coronavirus. Ranging from the classics to contemporary novels, this reading list of pandemic literature offers something in the way of an uncertain comfort, and a guide for what happens next.

I’ve finally got to the end of its 1,152 pages and have learnt that, after having had my fill of it all, a new adaptation is on its way, one that I’m — yet again — in no rush to see.

The 5 most challenging parts of adapting The StandPolygon
In a case of what could be considered great or terrible timing, depending on how you look at it, CBS All Access’ The Stand will arrive smack dab in the middle of an actual global pandemic. Will people flock to a show dramatizing a similar (albeit far more deadly) pandemic story when a real one has kept them locked in their homes for nine months?

‘The Stand’ doesn’t play by the bookRolling Stone
This new version has its inspired moments, like the way Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” somehow turns out to be the perfect theme song for Flagg, but the structure keeps sucking the life out of things, from major characters to more minor ones. The unhinged pyromaniac who calls himself Trashcan Man appears in a parallel narrative throughout the book before playing a huge role in its climax; here (played in suitably off-kilter fashion by Ezra Miller), he doesn’t turn up until the season is more than halfway done. Without the connective tissue, presented in the proper order, little of what we see feels like it matters.

Will this be something to watch if/when it works its way onto a channel I can access? Perhaps I need to wait 30 years again.

Creative reality

I enjoyed these recent interviews with a couple of creatives. It’s good to see some more work from Simon Stålenhag is on its way.

Simon Stålenhag puts a darker twist on his nostalgic sci-fi worldsThe Verge
There’s a weird coincidence in that it features police brutality and face masks — it has nothing to do with COVID or the protests in the US. I did it before they broke out. And that made me feel like I was afraid people might see this as a cheap exploitation of real-world events.

There are a lot of faceless enforcers of state violence. That’s a theme in The Labyrinth. While doing this, those images started pouring in from the protests in the US. When I started thinking about it, it was from protests in Spain in 2016 or 2017, I remember thinking it’s so weird that a democracy can have these thugs on the payroll to do these things. […]

It felt really weird when I really saw stuff in the news… reality is worse than your imagination.

Reality may be worse than your imagination for that artist, but it’s better for this one.

A conversation with animator and director Anna Mantzaris explores her penchant for nuanced emotion and finding humor in the mundaneColossal
Sometimes reality is better than your imagination. Sometimes when I try to make things up, I cannot make them as funny as a really good observation of something that happens. You’re like, “This is too good to be true. This is so weird.”

I thought I had already shared a link here to Anna’s witty and poignant Enough animation, but I can’t find it now, so I guess I didn’t. So here it is.

Staff Pick Premiere: Enough is enoughVimeo Blog
Mantzaris’ work lives somewhere between tragedy and comedy – a duality beautifully realized in her visual aesthetic. Her characters are stuck in a modern world defined by a sense of loneliness and isolation, where communication is either muffled or noisy, but never pleasant. … “I knew I wanted the characters to be quite awkward, imperfect but yet sympathetic,” explains Mantzaris. “I wanted them to have a soft feeling to contrast the not so soft actions.”

So, farewell then, IKEA catalogue

First Argos, now IKEA.

The IKEA Catalog is dead. Long live the IKEA CatalogPrint
The company has announced that after seven decades—following an “emotional but rational decision”—the publication is coming to an end. As for the Swedish furniture purveyor’s corporate reasoning, the lines are familiar—IKEA has become increasingly digital, and the catalog has less and less of a place in the modern world. Interestingly, IKEA is also nixing the digital version of the catalog, as well.

But don’t worry. Here, via another Print post, is a full, browsable archive.

Premiere for the IKEA catalogues online!IKEA Museum
For over 70 years, the IKEA catalogue has been produced in Älmhult, growing in number, scope and distribution. From the 1950s when Ingvar Kamprad wrote most of the texts himself, via the poppy, somewhat radical 1970s, all the way to the scaled-down 1990s and the present day – the IKEA catalogue has always captured the spirit of the time.

OK, don’t mind me, I’m just going to sit here for a while and work my way through all the catalogues from the 90s; Billy bookcases, Poang chairs, prehistoric laptops…

A Presidential memoir and library without precedent

I’ve been reading about two things that seem to happen to each US President once they’ve left office. They write a memoir, and get a library. Here’s something to set the mood.

In ‘A Promised Land,’ Barack Obama thinks — and thinks some more — over his first termThe New York Times
Nearly every president since Theodore Roosevelt has written a memoir that covers his years in office; this one contains some inevitable moments of reputation-burnishing and legacy-shaping, though the narrative hews so closely to Obama’s own discursive habits of thought that any victories he depicts feel both hard-won and tenuous. An adverb he likes to use is “still” — placed at the beginning of a sentence, to qualify and counter whatever he said just before. Another favorite is “maybe,” as he reflects on alternatives to what happened, offering frank confessions of his own uncertainties and doubts. At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself.

Can you imagine Trump being so reflective? Me neither.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama review – memoir of a presidentThe Guardian
To read Barack Obama’s autobiography in the last, snarling days of Donald Trump is to stare into an abyss between two opposite ends of humanity, and wonder once again at how the same country came to choose two such disparate men.

Who knows what he’d write about. Certainly not the truth.

A Trump memoir would sell. Will publishers buy it?The New York Times
“I would take a meeting,” said Dana Canedy, the senior vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s namesake imprint. “But there’s a huge gap between taking a meeting and publishing a book.” … “I’d have to be satisfied that he met Simon & Schuster’s overall standards for publishing a book, which is that book be honest, fair and balanced,” Ms. Canedy said. “We’d want to know that he would be willing to be edited and submit to a rigorous fact-checking process.”

The Office of Presidential Libraries, within the National Archives and Records Administration agency, oversees the 14 libraries established so far, from Hoover’s to Obama’s (possibly), via JFK’s, Nixon’s and all the others in between. These are repositories for preserving and making accessible the papers, records, and other historical materials of the US Presidents. Many aspects of Trump’s presidency are without precedent, so who knows if he’ll get one. Not that there will be much to archive.

Will Trump burn the evidence?The New Yorker
Donald Trump is not much of a note-taker, and he does not like his staff to take notes. He has a habit of tearing up documents at the close of meetings. (Records analysts, armed with Scotch Tape, have tried to put the pieces back together.) No real record exists for five meetings Trump had with Vladimir Putin during the first two years of his Presidency. Members of his staff have routinely used apps that automatically erase text messages, and Trump often deletes his own tweets, notwithstanding a warning from the National Archives and Records Administration that doing so contravenes the Presidential Records Act.

Trump’s library hasn’t been built yet, but as we’re used to wandering around libraries and museums virtually these days, let’s take a stroll round this online version. With its Autocrats Gallery, Alt-Right Auditorium, Felon’s Lounge and Wall of Criminality, there’s something for everyone.

Donald J. Trump Presidential Library
We are still grappling with what it means to have endured Donald J. Trump’s presidency while still repairing the historic carnage of this tumultuous period in American history. This Presidential Library is an attempt to provide the American and International communities a place to reflect on what the rise of White Nationalism has meant to our country and try to eradicate it from our political discourse.

What an accurate presidential library for Donald Trump would look likeFast Company
It’s clearly a parody. But the design also highlights a major question facing the post-Trump era, whenever that may be: How might such a presidential library attempt an accurate historical representation of a president and administration so prone to disinformation and falsehood?

Twitter Gallery
Alt-Right Auditorium
Covid Memorial
Drumpf’s Diner

Update 26/11/2020

The Library now has a Gift Grift Shop.

And it’s fun to see others joining in with the pranks.

President pranked as comedians snap up Trump 2024 domainThe Guardian
“We got the domain DonaldJTrump2024.com,” comics Jason Selvig and Davram Stiefler, AKA The Good Liars, wrote on Twitter. … Selvig and Stiefler offered to give the president the domain name “if you tweet ‘My name is Donald Trump and I lost the 2020 election by A LOT. I am a loser. SAD!’” As of Wednesday lunchtime Trump had not done so, despite having plenty of phone time on a day officially free of public engagements.

Stuck

I’m trying to cut down on the Trump posts, as the whole situation is so depressing, but I enjoyed this look at other crazy characters, historical and fictional, who have had trouble moving on — from ambassadors and governors to King Lear and Bartleby the Scrivener, amongst others.

When a leader just won’t goThe New York Times
Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University, said that one way to view Mr. Trump would be as a version of Miss Havisham, the jilted bride from “Great Expectations” who lives forever in the past, never taking off her tattered wedding gown even as her house decays around her.

“He’s wearing the cloak of the presidency and he’s stuck in his room, getting dusty, while everyone else has moved on,” Mr. Naftali said.

Gift ideas for book lovers

Christmas is just round the corner. Have you started buying presents yet?

The new COVID trend? Apparently, it’s buying rare books.Literary Hub
“We’ve seen an uptick in participation and enthusiasm,” James Gannon, director of rare books at Heritage Auctions, told Bloomberg. Heritage’s third auction of books from the library of Otto Penzler doubled its estimate; similarly, all online sales at Christie’s during COVID have surpassed their low estimates. This trend actually makes sense: the extremely wealthy have remained wealthy during COVID, and are left at home searching for things that bring them joy, like gazing at a letter written by Ludwig Wittgenstein and knowing you paid the most anyone in the world has ever paid for a letter written by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

if $137,575 for an author’s letter is a little steep, don’t worry, here’s another idea for the book lover in your life.

Portland’s iconic Powell’s Books is selling a book-scented unisex fragranceCNN
With hints of violet, wood and biblichor, the $24.99 perfume aims to replicate the smell of old paper that “creates an atmosphere ripe with mood and possibility, invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings,” according to the product description on Powell’s website.

Powell’s Books is releasing a fragrance that smells like a bookstoreKottke
If you can’t get your hands on Powell’s scent, you have other options. Demeter makes a fragrance called Paperback that’s available in a variety of formats (cologne, shower gel, diffuser oil) and Christopher Brosius offers a scent called In The Library in his shop.

I love the smell of books, but I don’t know I’d want to smell like “a warm blend of English Novel, Russian and Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish.”