Foundation (part two)
You made it!
Part one of this message was sent to subscribers. The remainder below might not make total sense without that context, but it should make some amount of sense …
In the past half decade or so, while so much attention has been fixed on the promise and peril that flows through apps on phones, the World Wide Web has quietly been stacking up new capabilities. A rising tide means the peak of what’s possible is higher; better yet, so is the baseline of what’s easy. It’s been a remarkable transformation.
Robin Rendle is, like me, in love with the web. In a beautiful, innovative essay, he writes:
And we’ve all moved to newsletters at the very moment when websites can do amazing things with layout and typography! We finally have grids and beautiful fonts and the wonders of print design on the web for the first time.
I’m going to direct you to Robin’s essay later in this newsletter, because I want you to read it … but first, I want to braid an argument in with the snippet above. I want to suggest that, while the gold rush rages elsewhere, us old time newsletter-ers have an opportunity —
I design and program a lot of my own ~media infrastructure~ over here. I’m not bound by any platform’s stingy product roadmap. If I want some weird new feature, I can just make it —
It can be an inline response field where I ask, where are you reading this email? Like, in what physical environment? Then, I can select a few responses, if permitted, and publish them back into the document.
I might learn (and you along with me) that people are reading
from quarantine, day 11 of 14, with three sleeps to go.
at their kitchen table, which was originally their parents’ kitchen table, apropos of the table discussion.
in a very quiet 11th-floor studio apartment on the Belgian coast.
in a tiny condo sixteen stories up (well, thirteen really, with “bad” 4, 13, and 14 omitted) in icy-cold Toronto
in their study, at home in Sutton Coldfield. “It is full of books and extremely untidy but I’m happy here.”
Once delivered to the inbox, an email newsletter’s form is fixed; I want mutability. (I also want to fix typos.)
Among the many small violences of the social media platforms is the way they squash every contribution into the same rectangle, framed by the same buttons. They do this so they can assemble those contributions into a larger structure; a timeline. They prefer neat bricks; stackable, interchangeable. Heterogeneous, weird-shaped content won’t do —
Now, listen: you can do a lot inside the frame of a tweet. You can do even more inside the boundaries of a minute-long TikTok video. But there remains this powerful reticence; platforms won’t cross the beams, won’t permit the peas to touch the potatoes. You can’t append a blog post to that TikTok video, and you can’t put a tiny video game inside that tweet. But why not? These screens support it. These screens want it!
Email imposes many of the same constraints, not by design (because it is barely designed at all) but by … decrepitude, I guess? This feels, to me, increasingly intolerable. I want to embed videos in newsletters —
“The web page”—I’m not sure I even meant to say that, rather than “the newsletter”. But that’s the difference exactly, isn’t it?
You see the method to my madness. If you are someone who really truly prefers to read in your inbox, I plead for your indulgence; give me half a year, and we’ll see if this works. I think it will work. I think it’s going to be fun!
Here, at last, is Robin Rendle’s essay, presented in its bespoke format. He’s done an amazing job with this. Really one of the better Robins.
I’ve been hyping Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future pretty hard; for me, it was the most memorable and maybe the most important novel of 2020. On February 9, I’ll interview KSR for an online event organized by the great Point Reyes Books. Absolute honor.
The past year has been a disaster for bookstores —
Here’s a link to this one, which is free, open to all, conducted with the app Crowdcast. Please join us on the 9th!
Tokyo Sogensha has published the Japanese edition of Ajax Penumbra 1969, my short prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, once again translated by Hiroko Shimamura, with a cover by Sky Emma. The title is new for this edition, and I love it: The 24-Hour Bookstore at the Beginning.
These newsletters have in recent years grown awfully linky. This is good: I think it’s the responsibility of any internet publisher, no matter how mini micro, to link liberally, especially to work that is a bit off the beaten path. It’s also bad: links can get monotonous. The drumbeat of “Isn’t this great! Isn’t this interesting!” thudding week after week, as if that’s all we’re here for, to flit from one thing to the next, to the next …
There’s no resolving this tension; links are somehow both numbing and essential. However, I would like this main channel to snap back into a more conversational mode, so, one of the new committees (which you can access via the ~link~ in your email) is the Reading Room, a bundle of “Isn’t this great! Isn’t this interesting!” that I’ll send somewhat more frequently.
That said … some links are crucial, and will remain. Hence:
Over the course of several months in 2020, the Ohno Type Co. presented on its Instagram page a detailed guide to type design, letter by letter. It’s a bit wonky to browse them now, midway down the foundry’s grid, but totally worth it. Anyone interested in the alphabet will learn something here.
And the voice is inimitable!
Seriously, it’s an absolute treasure-hoard of insight. Will these lessons be rescued from Instagram and bound into a book? Can they please be bound into a book?
Continuing on the same theme, this presentation from Eric Hu for Typographics 2020 was spectacular. He peels the onion of Los Angeles, using typography as a shuttle through history and memory. This was my favorite talk of any kind that I watched in 2020. Fascinating and thrilling.
I was packing up some olive oil in the shipping container, listening to this podcast, when the philosopher Todd McGowan said something that made me stop, scrub back, and listen again:
I think politics is a struggle over the distribution of enjoyment.
A bit later:
I really would push against this idea that politics is about how power is distributed in society. I think it’s much more about how enjoyment is distributed in society.
Even if that’s not correct, it feels to me like the kind of provocative little brain bomb that can be very useful to hear. What would it mean if it was correct?
Henry Sene Yee has produced new covers for all of Neil Gaiman’s books. I love a bold, coordinated new edition of an author’s whole range; this one will be published monthly in the U.S. by William Morrow, starting now.
In addition to being a world class designer —
I enjoy cooperative board games, and I must report to you that Ravine is an absolute winner: fun, challenging, quick to play. It provided the best and most memorable experience with a new game since my original introduction to the cooperative genre, which was, of course … Pandemic.
(Kathryn and I played a ton of Pandemic last year, which might sound like a weird thing to do, and maybe it is, but honestly, the game was consistently uplifting: an opportunity to contend against these forces and win.) (I should add that Kathryn and I are very, very good at Pandemic.)
Having seen those … any recs for additional books that strongly, obviously belong in this stack?
You show a stack like this and immediately you remember all the essentials overlooked: Alexander’s Prydain, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Nix’s Abhorsen …
You learn about some new possibilities, too:
- Once & Future, Kieron Gillen
- By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar
- The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner
- Encounters with Nature Spirits, R. Ogilvie Crombie
- The Elizabethan Underworld, Gāmini Sālgado
(Can “R. Ogilvie Crombie” possibly be the name of a real person and not just a character from a book like the ones mentioned above? It can be! Glorious.)
And, re: dictionaries and glossaries, several correspondents mentioned Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane, covered in an earlier newsletter. The ecstasy of weird language!
So begins a new chapter for the Society of the Double Dagger! Don’t forget to investigate those other committees.
P.S. Here’s the table 😋