Robin Sloan
main newsletter
January 2021

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 … 

A Rye Field Near Ring Village, 1886-1887, L. A. Ring
A Rye Field Near Ring Village, 1886-1887, L. A. Ring

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 — maybe a respon­si­bil­ity — to push the medium forward.

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 — for myself, for this par­tic­u­lar group of readers. It can be totally bespoke and bizarre.

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.

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

I might learn (and you along with me) that peo­ple are reading

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 — although it’s inter­est­ing to imag­ine what that kind of time­line might look like … 

A rough stone wall with a small gate set into it, somewhere in France.
A rough stone wall with a small gate set into it, somewhere in France.

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 — just lit­tle scraps of motion, inline, lightweight, like

Tap or click to unmute. Captions are available.

“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.

Has It Stopped Raining?, 1921-1922, L. A. Ring
Has It Stopped Raining?, 1921-1922, L. A. Ring

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 — those who run them, those who love them — but/and if there’s one mote of light, one gleam of inter­est­ingness, it’s that book events now default to global rather than local.

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.

Sky Emma's cover for The 24-Hour Bookstore at the Beginning
Sky Emma's cover for 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.

Ohno Type Co.
Ohno Type Co.

And the voice is inimita­ble!

Ohno Type Co.
Ohno Type Co.

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 — he did the cover for Sourdough’s paperback, among many others — Henry is my favorite pho­tog­ra­pher on Insta­gram.

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.)

Stewpot report:

Tap or click to unmute. Captions are available.

Having seen those … any recs for additional books that strongly, obviously belong in this stack?

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

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:

(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.

From Oakland,


P.S. Here’s the ta­ble 😋


January 2021