On What I’m reading

-I’m reading Supreme Court decisions (which are long, and those take some TIME; I annotate my copies, of course).

-I’m still reading McSweeney’s 54

-I’m listening to The Vegetarian by Han Kang in audiobook format. (It’s GREAT – the husband narrator is especially terrible, so it is a relief that there are others… Also, as a vegetarian, the horror and violence that erupts over the wife’s dietary choice, despite the country’s remarkable Buddhist cuisine and its known benefits, is so many things – familiar, plausible, remarkably foolish, and more.)

-I’m still reading Whitelash

-I want to read: Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister The Serial Killer; Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko; Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything; Zerlina Maxwell’s The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide; and Stacey Abram’s Our Time Is Now.

Book: Mira Schendel

Cover of the Tate catalog for Mira Schendel

Mira Schendel
edited by Tanya Barson and Taisa Palhares
published by Tate Publishing, London
2013

In 2014, I was struggling with my abstract drawing practice, and needed to see how other artists managed some of the geometric ideas/problems/experiments I kept sketching out. By some amazing stroke of luck, I wound up in London on business, and was able to drop by the fantastic Tate Modern to see the Mira Schendel show.

Mira Schendel was a remarkable, Swiss-born Brazilian artist whom I’d never heard of, but whose work was STUNNING and completely on point as a contrast to my own work (and sometimes, it is easier to clarify your own thoughts in contrast to others’!). She worked with text! Translucency! Layers! Perforations! Her work is a revelation, and impressed me with its depth, experimentation, breadth (she has a remarkably diverse practice), and the great presentation of some very delicate work at the Tate.

This book is the sold-out catalog from that show, which I was able to buy YEARS later through a used book shop online. (Every time I’ve tried to stop taking photos as notes, and relied upon a show catalog, I couldn’t get one…) The reproductions, including those of oil crayon on translucent paper – which I was CERTAIN would be too difficult a challenge – are beautifully reproduced.

The essays in this catalog are a bit dense: Schendel was a fan of philosophy, and so folks who aren’t fans of Wittgenstein and others of his era might skim these for key clues about Schendel’s interest in language as an organizing concept for the world, and focus on the one about Immanence before jumping into the reproductions. The reprints of interviews with Schendel at the end are a great way to end.

A reproduction from the book of a Schendel piece incorporating typography, translucency, geometry, and general brilliance.

As with other artists I find “revelatory,” Schendel may have been omitted from the resources available to me while researching art because (a) she wasn’t based in Europe, (b) her work is not in the collections of major US museums, so (c) the major institutional museums don’t promote her as part of the official modern/contemporary art “canon” (which is based on what they have collected, conveniently), and (d) she wasn’t part of a group movement, which is a conveniently self-organizing set of practices or themes that make it easier to file work within a particular era’s “canon.” (It’s all so tedious, though I understand the desire for organizing principles.)

This is a well-produced catalog of a truly impressive show, and the Tate and its partners in Brazil and Portugal should be proud of it.

Book: Real Man Adventures by T Cooper

Cover image

Real Man Adventures
by T Cooper
published by McSweeneys
2013

What does it mean to be a man? T Cooper’s delightful biography / memoir / interview collection / essays explore this with depth, humor, vulnerability, and great stories. T wasn’t born male, and so approaches the subject with charming thoughtfulness in a way that many born-male men might not.

The humor of the fantastic cover is a good fit. There are truly engaging stories in here, unsent letters, questions, asides, and observations that had me giggling out loud so many times…

There are many serious moments. Changing one’s gender presentation in the US can be a dangerous, due to misinformation, ignorance, fear of difference, and negative cultural influences – and anyone who is true to themselves in this way risks violence. We should ALL be allowed to be ourselves and be safe, but that isn’t our current situation, and this is acknowledged throughout the book in candid, personal ways.

This is one of the most outright FUN books that I’ve read in a long while, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

Book: Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow

Cover of Doctorow’s book

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age
by Cory Doctorow
published by McSweeney’s, San Francisco
2014

Before I discuss the book, I’d like to say that there was NO WAY Doctorow could have predicted the current coronavirus pandemic, and so the advice early in the book about how you shouldn’t be making a living off recordings of your performances, but should really be touring and making money on live shows was well intentioned. There is more on offer, so don’t stop at that point!

Cory Doctorow’s book extols the virtues of the unregulated distribution system known as the Internet, and advises that we should LET GO of the idea of having our creations protected by copyright and adapt.

His views are practical, but I rolled my eyes a few times while reading a physical copy of his book, which was professionally edited, published by a real publisher, and printed on paper by a printing company that got paid. Full disclosure: my bias here is that I LOVE HIS PUBLISHER, I have been buying things they publish for years, and I WANT THEM TO EXIST. Their existence requires some concessions to the models of business which he is critiquing.

He isn’t saying that traditional content publishing & distribution businesses are BAD for all purposes (except in a few places), he is saying that there are more options now, and we have the Internet to thank for that. And that is true, and is good. This is the core and highlight of the book’s themes.

The catch is that digitized creative work has been deeply devalued, and many people just take what they want without paying creators. Doctorow warns creators that making a living isn’t easy regardless (honest and a fair, gentle warning!), and then paints a sunny picture of the tech environment – if people love you, they’ll find ways of getting money to you, and you should make that easy for them to do!

He devotes lots of page space to the futility of preventing unauthorized copying. I’d feel better about it if I didn’t think my friends were getting ripped off. (I am NOT happy that some dude in Germany was burning CDs of a friend’s band’s new album and selling the CDs to pocket the money himself. That is not cool – my friend and his band had to spend a lot of time/effort/music-love/money to record that album. How many fans who want to support him are getting their money diverted away to this random dude?) I get that we are living in a sort of take-what-you-want age, and I personally mock friends who ‘rip’ content they can easily afford to buy. They are NOT supporting creators. Excuses about not wanting to support the corporate players in the industry ring hollow: these pals don’t need the stuff, but they are taking it anyway (like consuming dessert, but refusing to pay for it because the cafe is part of a corporate chain). Industries employ people and can be useful in promoting and distributing creative work – a writer whose indie publisher failed to promote him insisted that a corporate marketing department REALLY IS a useful service, and he wished he had access to one.

The arguments structured as:
– I can’t do what some of the big corporate tools do by myself
– I insist on using big web corp’s tools for my own purposes
– so this creates obligations on big web corp to fulfill more of my needs, rather than the needs of their paying business customers, and restrictions on me on this corporate tool are oppression….I just don’t see it. I preferred the old argument about how, if you didn’t like a tool, you could build a better one. (I’m an OLD geek.) If we aren’t willing to build a tool, the situation we find ourselves in is: someone else’s house, someone else’s rules. I believe we should regulate the hell out of public resources to ensure they are democratic and access is universally provided for the public benefit; we should let corporate-funded platforms serve corporate purposes – even if they build a big membership which we wish was more publicly accessible. If a popular corporate platform has many users, it does not automatically become a public utility – there has to be some trade off for that to be fair.

This is a thoughtful book, which draws different conclusions than I draw about what corporate stuff is useful for, but which has some fine asides about licensing revenue for content creators. I admire Doctorow’s optimism about technology, and his desire for things to be better for creators.

Book: Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel, by Martha Wells

Cover of Martha Wells’ new novel, Network Effect

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2020

Yes, Martha Wells has published the fifth book in the Murderbot Diaries, and she hit the word count to be a full-length novel while doing so, which is a big WIN for all of us Murderbot fans! More Murderbot to love!

First: if you haven’t read all four of the novellas, you really must do so: not only because they are awesome, but because they are part of one story, and you need to read those to understand the characters and events that appear here.

Okay: the novel is fantastic. It is fun! It combines the heavy action, emotional angst, sincere affection for certain humans, profane internal monologue, gender-neutral grammar, and inter-robot-friendship you have come to know and love. Adventure! Drama! Alien artifacts! Wells’ writing continues to be delightful, concise, and fantastic. The greater page length delivers more of the same joy the novellas did, in the same style.

This book made my day. Murderbot fans can rejoice in this novel, and look forward to more.

Books: Olafur Eliasson In Real Life edited by Mark Godfrey

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life
edited by Mark Godfrey
published by Tate Enterprises, Ltd.
2019

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life isn’t a conventional art show catalog, if you can’t already tell that from my other two or three notes about this book here. Yes, it does include photographs from the remarkable exhibition of the same name at the Tate Modern, which had adults saying “WOAH!” out loud while walking blindly through bright rooms, staring at mirrors and lenses and wave machines, and playing in colored lights like happy children. A conventional catalog would describe what we would have seen and experienced if we’d visited the exhibit in person, with some essays to understand the work better in retrospect. This book is instead is a supplement (and according to the artist, part of the exhibit itself) that pulls together interviews with scientists, artists, chefs, musicians, designers, and others to discuss a broad range of approaches to human engagement with the world.

Yes, the pictures are PRETTY, but that’s just to lure you in to thinking about the world more broadly. 🙂

Studio Olafur Eliasson isn’t just one person or particular pieces of art: it’s a large team of people with a range of specialties who are exploring all sorts of ways to engage with the world, from eating (yes, the studio has a vegetarian restaurant to feed the team; they’ve published a cookbook AND ran a cafe at the Tate Modern during the exhibit), to coloring rivers to raise your awareness of them (and what they should look like when they aren’t harmlessly-but-vividly-colored), to being aware of light (those yellow rooms are really more interesting in altering perception than you would guess), to producing solar products, to displaying remarkable rooms of geometric models that form the various presentations of the Model Room (which remind me of something one would make at SF’s own interactive science museum The Exploratorium), and include many great works by the late Einar Thorsteinn

This book packs in a lot of concepts, extensive discussions about the role of culture, the false split between culture and nature, some disturbing descriptions from a chef about duck brains (Scandinavian food has never sounded more alarming), that amazing Fab 5 Freddy interview that delighted and amused me (and inspired me to watch some of F5F’s film, Wild Style, on YouTube), ideas that sent me off to order books and read up on random topics…

This book is an engaging work/collection in its own right even when separated from the exhibit, and supplements the gorgeous visuals and experiences of the show with lots of in-depth research. I feel my mind has been enriched by having spent time with it.

Book: Anni Albers edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck

Anni Albers
edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck
published by Yale University Press
2018

Anni Albers, a gorgeously printed exhibition catalog and book of essays, shows off the work of phenomenal modernist Anni Albers, and her work in design, weaving, painting, and printmaking.

Those of us who have been fans of the pre-war Bauhaus school in Germany may know her work from compilations of the school’s many famous graduates and teachers; we may also know that women were sent off into the weaving department regardless of their design interests to an extent that raises questions about the motivations of the male staff. Albers really took to it, produced some fantastic, ultra-modernist work, and raised the profile of textile design at a time when it was profoundly under-appreciated.

The hair on the back of your neck may rise up a bit when you read about the punch cards that were used to set the patterns for jacquard looms… The Bauhaus operated in a time where mass production seemed like an opportunity to democratize access to basic goods, like shoes and housewares, and that good design could directly improve day-to-day life. (Yes, of course the Nazis shut them down.)

The details of Alber’s work are beautifully reproduced in remarkably color plates, often showing both the entire work (ranging widely in scale) plus details that allow you to appreciate the craft.

And there is more to her work! As an aspiring pattern designer, I love seeing how she worked out some of her designs on grid paper. As a textile lover, the reproductions thrill me. And as a print-maker – HEY, she does those really well, too!

Details of the remarkably high quality reproductions of Alber’s sketches, textiles, typewriter art, and the lovely binding, which does my book-binder’s heart glad.

She even has some typewriter art, which makes me think of Mira Schendel (different continent, later time), and of how my fellow geeks should really appreciate where the roots of ASCII art came from. (Geek joy!)

So much of her work is understated in that she uses muted colors, or relatively few colors – it never shouts. Which means it might have a hard time getting attention in our current, loud, shiny, sequined art world – but the design is BOLD. And the quality! The detail! The attention to everything! The essays follow her career from Germany to the US; from teaching at colleges and universities; from the loom to the press. It shows evidence of her processes (which were key to the experience for her, as an artist and as a teacher), of the interests in Central/South American textiles and collecting, and of her design approaches. (There is a white-on-white printed plate that I just ADORE…) This woman had RANGE.

This is one of those, HOW COULD SHE NOT BE BETTER KNOWN, TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS, AND SHOUTED ABOUT IN CAFÉS kind of revelatory books. Albers herself was a bit frustrated that she could earn so many paid commissions, design textiles for Knoll (ooooooh!), and yet people would only get excited when she worked on paper – when she created art that could not possibly have any utilitarian application. Fabric had been seen as TOO USEFUL, even though it is a brilliant technology – its association with women goes back to ancient times (see another favorite book of mine: Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Barber), and that seems to have held textile art back. Wrongly. SO WRONGLY.

The book – essays, production, binding, range of work included – is of the highest quality. The exhibition must have been phenomenal!

Book: Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Cover of Woman World

Woman World
by Aminder Dhaliwal
published by Drawn + Quarterly
2018

This graphic novel is ADORABLE and funny!

Set here on earth, Woman World tells the story of how a mysterious biological problem in humans means that all new babies are born female. Natural disasters destroy much of so-called civilization; years pass, and we find ourselves in a village where the children have never seen a human man, and the women are dreaming, falling in love, managing anxiety, being baffled by male-centric artifacts from the past, and making a new community under a Beyonce-loving banner.

It is also laid out very beautifully. The full pages are thoughtfully done; the spreads are used for optimal effect. A lot of thought went into the design, and the more I think about it, the more I am impressed at how each layout is used for best effect.

Did I mention adorable? ADORABLE. And witty. I laughed out loud repeatedly, and it brought joy to my heart.

Film: The Booksellers by D.W. Young

As part of my ongoing efforts to support my ICONIC local non-profit movie theater, The Roxie, I paid an indie ticket price through this link, so the money is split 50-50 with my local theater. How nice is that?

This is a documentary film about the rare booksellers of New York City, who are themselves becoming rare.

The film allows you to see their shops, their warehouses, and a completely over-the-top private library as you learn about the rare book business, and how difficult it is (and in some ways, always has been, Internet notwithstanding).

Books: The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation, edited by Mathieu Lommen

Cover of The Book of Books

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation
edited by Mathieu Lommen
published by Thames & Hudson
2012

I hand-sew and bind books, I read books, I buy books, I have books printed, I fill blank books, I collect books, I study books, I LOVE BOOKS! So it feels inevitable that I would find this book, which is about the printing technologies, fonts, and design of books, with an emphasis on Europe and/or printing that uses European alphabets.

This is a MASSIVE tome, and has reproductions of MANY books, with remarkable examples of everything from bibles to scientific texts to art books to books on how to break into castles. Which was apparently a really big thing. A thing that was important enough to buy books about. (My gift subscription to Castle Raider Monthly must have expired: I’ve been missing out.) If the term “siege engine” immediately came to mind, you win 500 Geek Points.

Collage of sample images from the Book of Books; older samples above, gorgeous Emigre image to the lower left, gorgeous Maria Merian image to the lower right.

The fonts are GORGEOUS. GORGEOUS! I would use some of them today! HOW DID WE EVER STOP USING SOME OF THESE!!! GAAAAAH! Sorry. I’ll pull myself together now. But really – such beauty! The folks who set this type, and who designed it – I hope they were lauded in their day!

Illustrated books and printing technologies are also discussed, and printing of this sort – etching and hand coloring and tipping in scientific illustrations – was once the key way to study sciences and the natural world in a time of limited travel opportunities. Books as a way to transmit key knowledge, not just as entertainment – that is so exciting!

After seeing remarkable samples of so many older works (going back to the late 1400s), thanks to the editor’s access to special collections in the Netherlands, I was beyond delighted that he extended all the way into the 2010s, and included the work of Emigre Fonts , an SF Bay Area-Local font foundry that arose with the Apple Macintosh back in 1984. The work of founders Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko has always been impressive and presented brilliantly (in their magazines, catalogs, and in active use), so I was thrilled to see their inclusion here.

I’ve spent some quality time with this book, and there is so much in it, I need to return to it repeatedly to process all that I’ve seen. It’s quite a work!

(Yes, I also have the Parr & Badger Photobook history, all the volumes, since photo books are their own design challenge…)