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Archive for May, 2008

Missing letters | 3

Published

Spotted on the corner of a building in Madison, Wisconsin, last weekend, at the entrance to an alleyway leading off State Street. I particularly like the unexplained vertical block between “FOR” and “RENT.”

Typescapes

Published

Israeli typographer and type designer Oded Ezer keeps turning language into arresting, surreal landscapes of letter forms. Sometimes they even seem to be biological. His most recent project is a short movie called The Finger, “an homage to the Israeli poet, choreographer, and art critic Hezi Leskley (1952–1994).” Even without reading Hebrew (which I don’t), you can see the intertwining of meaning and pure form, as Ezer twists and teases letter shapes into three dimensions and now extends the effect in time.

Six summer evenings of science fiction & fantasy

Published

Jacob McMurray does highly original design work. We just took delivery of this year’s publicity poster for the Clarion West Writers Workshop and its summer reading series (one reading a week by each of the six instructors during the grueling six-week workshop), and it’s gorgeous. You can see a tiny version of it over there, to your left. Jacob has been producing these silkscreened wonders for Clarion West for several years, each one more striking than the last. His day job, which takes up all his time, is as a senior curator at the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum, in Seattle; in his copious spare time, he is co-publisher with Therese Littleton of the quirky small book publisher Payseur & Schmidt, which does little projects with high production values and high-texture materials. Somehow each year he finds time as well to do a poster for Clarion West.

Adventures in POD

Published

I’ve just recently gotten printed copies of two books that I designed, for different publishers, both printed by print-on-demand or extremely short-run printers. And I’ve been surprised and pleased by the results.

The main problem with POD printing has been in the paper and the binding – the manufacturing, essentially, rather than the printing. Too many POD books are printed on overly bright white paper, often with the grain running the wrong way (the grain should be parallel to the spine; otherwise, the pages tend to curl from top to bottom), and bound much too tightly for easy opening and reading. The binding is still not perfect (despite being what’s misleadingly called “perfect bound” – a poor excuse for properly sewn signatures), but it’s more flexible than it used to be; and once you know how the bound book will open, you can design your pages with sufficient space in the gutter so none of the text gets lost in the glue.

These two books both have personal connections for me: the first, The WisCon chronicles: volume 2 (Aqueduct Press), is co-edited by L. Timmel Duchamp and by my partner Eileen Gunn; the second, Pushing leaves towards the sun, is a first novel self-published by my nephew Mark L. Berry, who in his “real” life is a pilot for American Airlines. I designed and typeset both books, naturally. The WisCon Chronicles was printed by Applied Digital Printing, in Bellingham, Washington, who have done quite a few short-run books for the publisher, Aqueduct Press; I made specific requests about paper stock and how flexible the books would be, and they managed to make it happen. Pushing leaves was printed by BookMobile, which was recommended by Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon Press (when Copper Canyon has to reprint a book with a short run, they often use BookMobile); not surprisingly, the result is quite readable. Both books were printed on off-white paper, so that the pages won’t glare brightly in your face while you’re reading. While neither book lies flat when it’s opened, as a book should, they’re no worse in this than most commercially printed books these days. What this means is that both books can be comfortably read – and that POD or short-run printing is no longer the spavined, jury-rigged approximation of real printing that it once was.

“You need to read this!”

Published

People are always asking me what I’ve been reading, whether it’s a conversational ice-breaker like “Read any good books lately?” or a real inquiry about recent intellectual activity. When someone asked me this recently, I found that I had a good, tripartite answer.

In the past year, I’ve read three remarkable nonfiction books: The stories of English, by David Crystal; The world that made New Orleans, by Ned Sublette; and 1491, by Charles C. Mann. Each of these books enlarged my understanding of my own world, and did so in a highly readable, engaged, intelligent manner.

The stories of English traces the history of our language, but does so while exploding the idea that there is only one English language, with all its variants being secondary. Nationalism began imposing a central language on people all over Europe in the 16th century (in France there was an explicit policy of translating what had once been written in Latin into French, and using the language as a tool of state expansion). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea of a “standard” language caught hold, with strenuous efforts made to regularize and regulate the national language, and to make one version of the language (usually what was spoken in the capital, or at court) the template for everyone else. Although the English proved too anarchic to set up a national Academy, the way the French had done, there were plenty of pundits in the 18th century trying desperately to do so. And they did succeed in imposing the notion of “correct” language – and by implication to make all other versions “incorrect.” The chapters of Crystal’s book about the English language before and after the Norman conquest are the most fascinating, though everything in the book puts our language into a very welcome and original perspective.

The world that made New Orleans: from Spanish silver to Congo Square does for American history what David Crystal’s book does for the English language: lifts it out of cant and doctrine and exposes its multifarious roots. Ned Sublette has written before about the complexities of New World culture, in Cuba and the its music, where he made it very clear that historically, the ports of Havana and New Orleans have been intertwined since they were founded. What he does here, superbly, is make us feel, not just know, how the cultures of Africa and of Latin America have been integral to the culture of North America all along – not just adjuncts or footnotes or incidental flavorings, but part and parcel of our culture. The world that Ned Sublette portrays is infinitely rich, and it’s ours.

1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus is probably the best-known of these three books; it’s had a high profile. I was a bit skeptical of it at first, expecting a woo-woo mishmash; but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a well documented, carefully described investigation of some of the new scientific information that has emerged in just the last few years about the peoples of the New World before (and immediately after) the arrival of the Europeans. It upsets received notions and refuses a simplified catch-phrase portrayal of either the native cultures or the European cultures that colonized them. Some of what he writes about I already knew – such as the widespread use of fire as a way of modifying the growth of trees and other plants on the pre-Columbian eastern seaboard, which I learned about in reading the cultural geographer Carl Sauer – but much of it was new to me; much of it is simply new, coming from extremely recent research. My skepticism was assuaged when a friend of mine who is a specialist in pre-Columbian art spoke highly of this book and its accuracy. 1491 is not one of those “everything you know is wrong” crowd-pleasers; it’s an enrichment of our understanding, a book that leaves us with more than we thought we had.