Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Most Print Books are Ugly

In the endless debate over e-books, one of the principal reasons for defending the older, analogue model of publishing has been the fetishisation of the book as an object (I'm not using 'fetishisation' perjoratively here: I'm a fan of fetishisation). But the fact is that the vast majority of printed books are not desirable objects. The vast majority of printed books are incredibly ugly. They're printed on cheap paper, which begins to yellow very quickly; they're poorly bound, and begin to fall apart very quickly; they're poorly typeset, with inadequate margins; and they're shoddily packaged, with covers that date very quickly.

I do not conclude from this that e-books are better than traditional paperbacks: no design whatsoever is not superior to poor design. My conclusions are instead similar to those of Richard Nash, former Head of Soft Skull Press, interviewed at The Boston Review:

I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years. 

Interviewer: Why? 

When I started at Soft Skull in 2001 we were printing on 55-pound paper. By 2005, we were typically printing on 50-pound paper. By 2008, half our books were on 45-pound groundwood. And that’s because our print runs were going down. And even with publishers whose print runs weren’t going down, they were trying to save money. Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore. 

If you’ve got a manufacturing supply chain, then the dictates of manufacturing are going to be the ones that drive the business. And there’s certainly going to be some ad hoc occasional efforts not to do that: certain independent publishers will try to focus on quality, and certain individual books from other publishers might be tarted up for one reason or another, for marketing purposes. But those are the exceptions. Basically, when you’ve got an industry that is pushing out $25 billion worth of physical products into a supply chain, the vast majority of businesses are going to try to cut costs and increase revenues. And the simplest way to cut costs is going to be on the production side. So if the core of the business is no longer a supply chain, but rather the orchestration of writing and reading communities, the book is freed of its obligation to be the sole means for the broad mass dissemination of the word, and instead become a thing where the intrinsic qualities of the book itself can be explored. 

I believe in the importance of book design to the reading experience. In its current form, the e-book entirely nullifies the existence of design, and wiping out centuries of accumulated wisdom on how to improve the reading experience at a stroke hardly seems worthy of celebration. But equally I feel little nostalgia for the cheap, smelly, decaying paperback editions I grew up with.

I think the role of printed books in the future will be similar to the role of vinyl in the current music industry. And if that means better designed and better produced books, but in much smaller quantities, and at a higher price, well, so be it.

For my next book, I anticipate preparing a 'generic' electronic edition, which adapts the contents to the limitations of e-book format (since it's foolish to pretend that e-books don't exist); and a printed version with a more elaborate and nuanced design. The word count will be exactly the same, but the presentation will be quite different. Such distinctions seem a necessary evil, since failing to accomodate the electronic version to the limitations of the software in e-readers could have unforeseen consequences, and (in a book in which design is an important element) could in fact render parts of the work utterly incomprehensible if said design elements are simply automatically 'stripped' by the e-reader. Authors have to intervene in this process, not leave it to the software designers.

Or maybe my sense of the limitations of e-readers is inaccurate (I don't own one). Has anyone read, for example, House of Leaves on an e-reader? What kind of experience was it?

[N.B. I found the Nash interview here.]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bagpuss and Commodity Fetishism

The collector … makes his concern the transfiguration of things. To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he bestows on them only connoisseur value, rather than use value.
Walter Benjamin

What is it that animates Bagpuss and his friends? Love.

Emily's shop doesn't sell anything, but only displays valueless objects lost by others. These lost objects include, implcitly, Bagpuss and his friends, who live in the shop window, and who, in each episode, interpret and repair a new object that Emily finds and brings to the shop:

The toys would discuss what the new object was; someone (usually Madeleine) would tell a story related to the object (shown in an animated thought bubble over Bagpuss's head), often with a song, ... and then the mice, singing in high-pitched squeaky harmony as they worked, would mend the broken object. The newly mended thing would then be put in the shop window, so that whoever had lost it would see it as they went past, and could come in and claim it.

Bagpuss is about the recovery of meaning through love. Love is a kind of fetishisation, but it acts as the antidote to commodity fetishisation. 

(I see I am not the first to give Bagpuss a quasi-Marxist reading. In mulling over this reading, I also had a go at connecting the moment of Bagpuss waking up to Benjamin's image of awakening into revolutionary consciousness from the nightmare of history, but I couldn't quite make that idea work.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

'Casanova' by Federico Fellini

Heath Ledger is too pretty for the title role in Lasse Halstrom's recent film about Casanova. The Venetian lover has no pathos if he’s played as a pretty boy. Fellini's similarly eponymous 1976 film stars Donald Sutherland, an unlikely (and therefore more interesting) choice, with his prominent eyes and lugubrious face, features which are further exaggerated by an artificially shaved hairline. His head looks like an egg, from which two additional half-eggs protrude in the form of his eyes. It’s a film about creative exhaustion (sex being Casanova’s arena of aesthetic activity), which unfortunately succumbs to its protagonist’s state of mind.

In the most striking scene, Casanova makes love to his ideal partner: a clockwork automaton, played by Leda Lojodice (a.k.a. Adele Angela Lojodice), who I assume was a dancer, since her movements are precisely suggestive of mechanism, but in a graceful, liquid way: a woman pretending to be a doll pretending to be a woman. (This version is in Italian with no subtitles, but the dialogue isn't really important.)

The music and sound design (for the automaton's clockwork sounds) complement the actress's performance perfectly. It's an incredibly creepy scene about narcissism and objectification, which is obviously influenced by Hoffman's tale of the Sandman, with the doll here being a version of Olympia in that tale.

Compare and contrast Deckard's encounter with the renegade 'pleasure model' replicant Pris from Blade Runner:


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Project

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, entry on ‘Existentialism’:

[T]he self cannot be conceived as a Cartesian ego but is embodied being-in-the-world, a self-making in situation. It is through transcendence—or what the existentialists also refer to as my “projects”—that the world is revealed, takes on meaning; but such projects are themselves factic or “situated”—not the product of some antecedently constituted “person” or intelligible character but embedded in a world that is decidedly not my representation. Because my projects are who I am in the mode of engaged agency (and not like plans that I merely represent to myself in reflective deliberation), the world in a certain sense reveals to me who I am.

From Susan Sontag, ‘‘Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson’:

All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty. The imagery of the religious vocation and of crime are used jointly. Both lead to ‘the cell’. .... In A Man Escaped, the elderly man in the adjoining cell asks the hero, querulously, ‘Why do you fight?’ Fontaine answers, ‘To fight. To fight against myself’. The true fight against oneself is against one’s heaviness, one’s gravity. And the instrument of this fight is the idea of work, a project, a task.

From Reciprocity Failure, chapter 1:

‘Are you an artist?’

I scowl, but she doesn’t sound like she’s taking the piss. ‘No’.

‘What then?’

I shrug. ‘Progetto’. An all-purpose Italian word, indicative of intellectual or artistic ambition, but without any precise commitment.

Monday, October 15, 2012

'Texi Driver' by Martin Scorsese (written by Paul Schrader)


I wrote an austere film and it was directed in an expressionistic way. I think that the two qualities work together. There is a tension in the film that is very interesting.
Paul Schrader