Back From the Big City
Resplendent Explorers —
How are you? Alive? Well? Fighting evil?
It’s fireworks season in Japan. Long, languid seaside displays under which families and lovers stretch out on blankets and BBQ various things while drinking beers. Slow motion electric sky flowers, a collective hypnosis, how we keep from going insane in the face of relentless, suffocating humidity.
I just finished three weeks of lecturing at Yale and running meetings in NYC and it was — as it almost always is — illuminating, exciting, exhausting, surprising, inspiring … fun? Yes! All the adjectives one hopes for. However, in that time I managed to write a grand total of 328 — non-textmessage, non-email — words. Which is to say: I am a big wimp. When my schedule fills up, my creative tenacity collapses.
This was my seventh summer lecturing at Yale. Seven is a lot of years, and given that much time, narrative arcs of the industry begin to emerge.
Seven years ago the energy in the room was desperate, scared, confused. Everyone wanted advice on how to build apps, which digital reading platforms to support. Guidance was sought. Cautious advice dispensed.
This year? Placid comfort. It’s not as if the industry has fully ossified, but compared to seven years ago, the publishing world feels downright sedate. Amazon won. Everyone else lost. Apps are worthless. People like paper. These are immutable facts around which one can build a profitable business.
In my keynote I tried to impress how insignificant books are in the market cap of AMZN. (~%0.05) And how the real “revolution” of the past few years has been in systems — funding, fulfillment, production, distribution. They’re better, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before. And so if you’re a publisher who wants to woo a certain kind of author, you really need to bring some big time distribution and PR value propositions to the table.
I also brought up mailing lists: The most analog thing in digital space, vinyl records of online communication, one of the few things you can actually own, and one of the few spaces not touched by algorithms (mostly).
Podcast! with Frank Chimero
Episode 002 of On Margins went up a few weeks ago. In it designer and author Frank Chimero and I blab voluminously on how today is a golden age for bookmaking. Systems! We talk about Frank’s book, The Shape of Design, Frank’s design process, and how the normalization of crowd funding snuck up on us.
For those who care about such things (and those who do, care deeply, I’ve come to learn) — I’m now speaking into an Electro-Voice RE-20 as pumped through an Arturia Audiofuse pre-amp/usb interface. I recorded the intro (just the intro) to 002 on the new setup. Quite a boost from the old USB Rode Podcaster I was previously using. Also, I moved, with sadness, from my minimal tatami room to my closet in an effort to minimize echo. (It makes a big difference. Le sigh.)
Episode 003 is recorded (secret guest) and currently on the editing chopping block.
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Robin Sloan! and his new book
Robin Sloan’s new novel, Sourdough, is just about to hit stores. The greatest gift you can give any novelist with a forthcoming book is to pre-order the thing. You can do so here. Like Penumbra, Robin’s universe in Sourdough is just on the edge of ours, culling and augmenting the best parts of what we have. His San Francisco is a San Francisco I’d love to visit someday, but know I never will. So it’s with a kind of nostalgia for what should have been, where we could have gone, that I spend time in Robin’s worlds — that of Penumbra and now Sourdough — and am grateful for every second he gives us.
My schedule between Yale and NY consisted of — quite literally — five big conversations a day, and a dozen tiny ones (on average). The shortest big-conversations clocking in at one-and-a-half hours, the longest running upwards of six. Approximately twenty-one days, ten hours-a-day of high-level scheming (sprinkled with low-level jabbering).
In other words: Inverse Vipassana.
Scheduling meetings, coordinating people, anticipating a certain pattern to discussion, the interlocking of timelines; there’s a joy to setting it all up, a joy once again in seeing it come together, and a joy in the improvisation necessary when things inevitably fall through, life intervenes. And then the final delight in comparing the expected (the intellectual) to the real (experiential) on the plane ride home.
Having done this now for roughly twelve years (the back and forth between Japan and New York, the filling of my New York days with conversations), I’ve come to expect a certain hollow (hallow?) feeling as I board my return flight. And I’ve long since learned that trying to write, even just a little, while in the middle of it all is a hopeless endeavor.
I suppose you may ask: What’s the point of a trip like this? And I’d answer, in part: A seeding of a shared idea bank that pays dividends over the coming months and years. How, exactly? Who knows. That’s where faith comes in.
Essay! on designing books
I published an essay on book design recently: To Make a Book, Walk on a Book. It focuses mainly with the design of Koya Bound, but also delves into the design of other book projects and pretentiously references a philosopher.
The biggest Koya Bound design challenge we faced was in transposing a time-bounded, linear series of photographs into a sequence unbounded from time but still connected to the emotional pulse of the eight days. A walk carries with it an inherent linear bias — you want the images to unfurl the way the days unfurl in your mind. But precise linearity was less important to us than that emotional pulse.
Weird media observation: I published the essay first on Medium, but I noticed a strange backlash against the platform. How do you feel about Medium? Are you feeling backlashy? Do you wish to avoid linking to it?
I also published it on my own site (which is what I do with most essays, eventually, though it takes a non-trivial amount of time to properly transpose).
Link to whichever one makes you feel more like walking on a book.
Novella! The Strange Bird
VanderMeer’s novella, The Strange Bird, blew my head off. What a delightful, beautiful, heartbreaking surprise. I couldn’t put this thing down, and keep thinking about it weeks later. Now to start Borne.
Leica! M10 a few months in
I’m still enjoying the Leica M10. And it’s still as weird a thing as it purports to be — all manual and endearingly imprecise. But the combination of its new sensor and the Summilux 50MM is … well, shucks, it’s just magic. The way it sucks up light and renders the world crystalline and prismatic through its optics, luminescent fractured bokeh and all. (That’s me trying to get $10,000 worth of sentence out of a camera.)
I realize there are other, much less expensive lens and body combos that can achieve similar results, but I have to admit, I’m into the archaic challenge presented by the M10. Every shot is hit or miss, with more misses than hits. I guess it makes the hits more satisfying? Who knows — and who cares — it’s just fun to use, dumb block of beautiful metal it may be.
Last week Lynne Tillman and I strolled the surprisingly temperate and comfortable streets of NYC for an afternoon and we — at her fluffy-haired behest — popped into the Carol Rama: Antibodies exhibit at The New Museum. It’s astounding. If you’re in NY and can swing by, do so. I was most struck by how strongly influenced her work felt by the design world (or how much she influenced it), and also by how contemporary and wild it was (until you squint at the dates and realize: 1934).
Essaying! James Baldwin
Spending time in America, I’m frequently reminded of this passage from James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name:
But Europeans have lived with the idea of status for a long time. A man can be as proud of being a good waiter as of being a good actor, and, in neither case, feel threatened. And this means that the actor and the waiter can have a freer and more genuinely friendly relationship in Europe than they are likely to have here. The waiter does not feel, with obscure resentment, that the actor has “made it,” and the actor is not tormented by the fear that he may find himself, tomorrow, once again a waiter.
Vipassana Part Two
It’s now been two months since I went dark for ten days. If you’re recently joining you can read part one of my adventures in Vipassana.
I was going to delve more deeply into my Vipassana time, but this missive got really top-heavy. So for next time (which will come sooner than later) — a whole batch of Vipassana deconstructions. Promise.
I ended the last Roden saying I was entering “Finish The Book weeks.” Happy to report I made excellent progress, a new draft of the book was finished and handed off to my blessedly patient readers, saints all of them. I’m collecting feedback next week. Then we enter “Fix the Book month,” transitioning into “Pitch the Book UNDEFINED_TIME_PERIOD.” That will happen from mid-September to mid-October.
Wishing all you good readers in North America a happy blackhole sun day, may your skies be clear, and you lose your mind beautifully and lyrically.
As always, thanks,
p.s., here’s a door I love: