Roden
Issue 041
June, 30, 2020

Book World



Rodenites —

Hello from Book World. I’m Craig Mod, and this is the Roden newsletter, and while I haven’t lost my mind, it currently occupies that neurotic space between “the last five-percent” (ha ha!) of a creative project and a deadline. It’s just paper and layouts and editorial suggestions and smoothies all the way down. I’ve been solidly in Book World for the last month. Ignoring email, texts, messages. If it’s not directly connected to The Book then it’s not getting my attention. If you see me tweeting, it’s because I’m avoiding making a Book World decision. If you get an email from me, send me a little cyber-slap because chances are, I should have been emailing my printer.


The book I’m talking about is my Kissa by Kissa book (aka, the “pizza toast” book). The plan was to launch by end of June but that whooooooshed by (what is “time” anymore, anyway) and now the plan is to get the pre-sale campaign up by … July 13? Tight, but possible. (I originally wrote July 10 but … let’s give me an extra weekend.)

For, you see, like a true dingdong I decided to not just “make this book,” but also define a template for a series of books, work with a new printer, set up more durable fulfillment infrastructure, work with a different fine art printer for limited edition photo prints, build a new online shop (with Kickstarter-like pre-sale goals), AND try to make the best damn book this thing can be.

I’ve hired folks, commissioned illustrations. A few times each week packages arrive with new print samples, cloth samples, ink saturation tests, paper tests. Every few weeks I commute four hours to the printer. Choices are being made, potential versions whittled away leading us towards some “platonic ideal” of this particular book. It won’t be ideal — they never are — but I hope to get it closer to good than not, and more than anything, hope to minimize the chance of a dumb typo or typographic foible.

This phase of a book project requires a kind of sustained, almost trace-like focus each and every day. This makes splitting attention elsewhere tough. You become freakishly intimate with every word and each image, so much so that you need other eyes on the work to see it with any kind of freshness. Thankfully I have a few extra sets of trustworthy eyes I’m leaning on.


Film

I’ve been taking breaks to go on long bike rides, or walks, or watch old films. I caught up on The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) both of which aged better than I had expected — engaging, if melodramatically goofy at times. Falcon brings with it the added delight of seeing a very non-tech version of San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, even back then, the only apparent way to get around that city was cabs.

A fun trifecta of mid-ish 20th century SF-based films might be Falcon, Vertigo (1958), and The Conversation (1974). I tried living in SF twice in my life and it never cohered for me, never justified its (manifold) costs. But on film, it’s got a working vibe I dig.

If you are looking to read about an older edition of SF, I enjoyed Ellen Ullman’s book By Blood (2012) which takes place in the 70s.


Netflix Japan (and perhaps Netflix {your country}?) released remastered editions of Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no Aji, 1962) and Yoji Yamada’s The Yellow Handkerchief (Shiawase no Kiroi Hankachifu, 1977). I had never seen Handkerchief, it’s a strange gem. I really enjoyed it, but I could see how one could dislike it because, well — misogyny, toxic(-ish) masculinity, weak female characters, et cetera. This is one of the issues of watching any of these old films (Falcon is riddled eye-roll moments): the norms of the time were normy, and those norms are blargh compared to now. Caveats aside, narratively, Handkerchief is interesting in its unpredictability, and the performances are hilarious, all-around solid.

Yoji Yamada is also the director of the Tora-san series which I’ve been meaning to write about for ages. It’s a fifty-film series (fifty!!) about, basically, a guy (Tora-san, pictured up top) who walks around Japan in a state of endless haplessness. He’s truly hopeless, arguably an alcoholic, and too emotionally weak to be toxic in the traditional, alpha sense. The series’ (maximally tongue-in-cheek) title, Otoko ha Tsurai yo translates to “Hey, it’s tough being a man.” In lesser hands the setup would be insufferable, but Kiyoshi Atsumi — who plays Tora-san — is … well, he’s … the greatest? He’s not even a man, he’s a creature floating between cracks in a social tesseract of his own device. I don’t know how you can fit more condensed nostalgia into 90-minute-sized celluloid capsules. It’s one of those actor:role soul-melds. And it’s hysterical. If you see him in anything else (he appears briefly in Handkerchief which reminded me of the series) he is always some lesser version of his Tora-san self. The entirety of Otoko ha Tsurai yo is streaming on Netflix Japan. (Netflix Japan is like the wealthy cousin of Criterion Collection.)


Lit

Odessa Moshfegh’s new (but written before her previous book) novel, Death in Her Hands came out a few weeks ago. I will follow Moshfegh wherever she wants to go. I loved it, but it’s a great example of a book succeeding despite an unbelievable narrator. Though, this is fairly common for Moshfegh’s work. Is Eileen’s Eileen whole? McGlue’s McGlue? In Death, the protagonist is supposedly a woman in her 70s, widowed, living alone in a cabin, losing her grip on things. But the book is so suffused with Moshfegh’s youthful energy and sharp eye that I never felt Vesta made the leap into elderly womanhood. Not a complaint, just an observation about the strength of Moshfegh’s tone, and how a work sometimes can’t escape its creator.

Death has this wonderful passage where Vesta observes some kids using the internet in the library:

They looked like Benedictine monks sitting there tapping at their keyboards, faces wan in the cold blue glare off their screens. I stood and watched them impatiently. Each of them was agape, mesmerized. I could see that they were connected to something that had immense power over them. This was what happened when the mindspace was the internet, I thought. One loses one’s sense of self. One’s mind can go anywhere. And at the same time, the mind becomes lame when it is connected to something so consuming.

Ah, yes, the mind made lame, once melded with internet mindspace.

As I’ve written before, Moshfegh’s short story collection, Homesick From Another World is superb, and it offers a kind of behind-the-scenes peek at her sketching out of certain character archetypes. Ariel Levy profiled Moshfegh for the New Yorker a few years ago. She’s my hero.


I’ve also been completing my Bruce Chatwin diet. I started Songlines ages ago, but am only now finally finishing it. Here’s a line that struck me:

… in practice, it scarcely matters whether myths are the coded messages of instinct, whose structures will reside in the central nervous system, or tales of instruction handed down from the Year Dot.

I just liked that framing: Myth making as not a uniquely creative act but a surface encoding of genetics, of instinct.


Photo Books

The photographer Koji Onaka’s work moves me. His book Lucky Cat is something special. Although I haven’t been able to track down a copy for myself, I’ve kept it in mind along with the work of others as I sequence and resequence Kissa by Kissa.

This sequencing of images in a physical book feels so much closer to films (movies, not physical Kodaky film-film), than I had noticed before. Much more than any kind of image sequencing online. In part this is because the container for images on a screen is so fluid, unpredictable. A book is immutable and from that immutability and rigidity comes a kind of linear control over experience.

In film you have cuts, and you can dramatically manipulate a viewer’s experience by the smallest of camera movements. So, too, with image sequencing in a book (page turns and crops). I just moved an image I had buried in the middle of my book to the front, and the whole is suddenly a different and more compelling beast altogether.

I think this is why I’ve been so drawn to filling my “downtime” with watching films — watching a film with even the slightest of critical eyes feels like it’s sharpening the same instinct you need when laying out a book of images.


Continuing down this path, let’s define a bare minimum layout grammar for a photo book:

  • (a) single image on recto
  • (b) single image on verso
  • (c) diptych — single images on recto and verso
  • (d) full-spread — single image through gutter across a spread
  • (e) blank page

You then have have to contend with portrait and landscape modalities, further complicating this “simple” set of rules.

And then you have the effect of sequence. (a) followed by (d) will be experienced differently than (b) followed by (d). An (a) followed by (b) will impart a kind of physical connection between the images because they’ll literally be on top of one another. (a) followed by (b) is vastly different experientially than (a) and (b) on a single (c) spread. And on and on and on.

You also have placement in signature. Signatures are the (usually) sixteen-page bundles of which a bound book is composed. Depending on the binding, an image placed on page three of a signature will fall differently within the frame of the book than an image on page eight.

You get the idea. By virtue of combinatorics, the permutations (because order matters; and let’s ignore orientation and signature placement and the fact that my book also has text pages for a second) for the universe of photo books is (at least) 5^{pages} … so for a sequence of 10 pages there are … 9,765,625 options. Even if you cross out 99.999% of dumb layouts, you still have a thousand options. Do you seem why I’m ignoring email? (Kissa by Kissa is 128 pages long.)


Membership stuff

The membership program chugs along. Recently, we had a members-only lecture by Japan scholar John McBride on the the art islands (Naoshima, Teshima, et cetera) of the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. A sixty minute lecture with forty minutes of Q&A. So much fun. And I just posted for members a video chat I had with Kevin Kelly last week about “1,000 True Books.” He talks about his latest photo book project, and we discuss for sixty minutes the positives and negatives of Amazon, fulfillment, giant books, paper thicknesses and more.

Members get access to all that and more (book-making livestreams and other goodies). I’ll also be doing some behind-the-scenes bookmaking videos for members once Kissa by Kissa goes to press (we’ll do some press visits together). Huge thanks to current members — this program is genuinely supporting me and my work and I am ever grateful for its presence.


Smoothies

I am back on the smoothie train. For years I was a fervent smoothie junkie. Three years ago my $80 blender rusted itself off and I stopped cold turkey. A month ago I realized I was getting way less protein (I’m mostly pescatarian with the occasional chicken thrown in, haven’t had red meat in over a decade) than I should have been. So: back on the smoothies.

I make a 300ml+ biggie in the morning. 35g of protein split between whey and pea / soy proteins. Maca power, spirulina, frozen bananas, seasonal veggies, cacao nibs, manuka honey, flax seeds, walnuts, and then a mix of almond milk (1) : water (1.5). It is hearty but delicious and my body now demands it.

I like that feeling — the body demanding a thing it knows nourishes. A habit has been formed, and the habit is additive. The battle never ends, but adding as many additive habits to a life has the corollary of minimizing reductive habits. Time is zero-sum, and the more you fill up on the good side, the less the bad has to work with.


With that, it’s back to Book World. Which has also shifted into its own special nourishment space. I need to be in the book these days. I’m excited about it and am now even more excited about the next book, which I take to be a big positive sign.

Going to print is like the epic version of hitting send on an email — suddenly everything wrong on the page becomes clear. The trick is to “go to print” in your mind a few times before actually doing so.

And, so, good-bye, surface world. Back to the deep of the book.

C

p.s. 1: I realized my knowledge of contemporary female street photographers was lacking, so I asked folks on Twitter who I should know / follow. Gems galore. Thanks, Twitter.

p.s. 2: I opened this document to write to you all: “Taking a pass on Roden this month. Overloaded with book work.” But then I wrote a little more, and then a little more, and then on some breaks wrote a bit more and … well, this is a good example of how just sitting down and doing the thing is 99% of the work.