The Reading Room
Here is your liberal art!
A few weeks ago, I launched a simple, one-page project: the Library Demand List, which takes the titles on the current New York Times Best Sellers list and scales them by the number of holds on each at a selection of U.S. public libraries. It’s like looking at the list through library-colored glasses.
This message was emailed to the Reading Room committee. The assumed audience is subscribers interested in a boatload of links and recommendations. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)
The project was motivated by own curiosity, which emerged from experience; I was late to the Libby bandwagon, but/and now I am firmly aboard.
This is 100% conjecture, but I truly believe the surge in library e-book lending in the U.S.—which predates the pandemic, though of course it accelerated even more in 2020 —
If you don’t already know about the back end of these systems, then Dan Cohen’s post about the thicket that is library e-book acquisition is a must-read. Libby abstracts all of that away, which makes for a great user experience, but/and I think it’s important to understand the tangle behind the scenes.
Here, now, presented for the benefit of the Reading Room committee, is what I’ve been reading, enjoying, squirreling away.
I just finished Madeline Miller’s novel Circe and totally loved it. It deploys the familiar, which is always pleasurable, in a strange new way, which is even better. The details of Miller’s divinities, the way she imagines the psychologies and physiologies of the Greek gods, are, for me, the new standard. What an achievement.
Permit me to enthuse a bit more:
Extremely related: Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology is out in just a couple of days. I can’t wait to read it.
As some of you know, I own a decrepit Risograph printer; I’ve used it to print MANY different things, ranging from materials for Fat Gold to one-page fiction zines I mailed out to a few thousand people. A friend recently purchased a much newer Riso and it is a revelation: where before I struggled to reach “acceptable” with my prints, now “acceptable” is the baseline and I can go from there.
At the same time, the studio ANEMONE has released a Mac app called Spectrolite that’s designed to help people produce interesting color separations for the Riso. You can do that in Photoshop, but, as with everything in Photoshop, it feels like chipping the little piece you want from a glacier of capability. In this app, the little piece is everything. Spectrolite knows about the Riso ink colors exactly, and no other colors at all! It’s wonderful.
There’s a sense here of app as home-cooked meal. I can’t imagine that Spectrolite has a potential userbase of more than a few thousand people, total —
Specific, situated creative software.
I feel like this is a thing that’s totally possible and not enough people realize it.
One of ANEMONE’s principals operates All Well, a creative sewing studio that offers some really terrific-looking patterns. I went through a sewing phase a couple of years ago —
Speaking of two-person creative collaborations: the duo known as Hundred Rabbits has made an e-book of their North Pacific Logbook available for $5. As I wrote back in September,
They recently completed a 51-day transit of the Pacific Ocean, sailing from Japan to Canada in a rather small boat, and their logbook makes for gripping reading. It’s legitimately harrowing —
there are some close calls — so I don’t unreservedly recommend it to everyone, but if you are up for a real-life adventure, wow. Here it is.
Jennifer Daniel leads the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, and she recently started a newsletter connected to that work. It is transcendently good, both for its close-up view of the emoji-making process AND for Jennifer’s energy and voice. For me, this is 2021’s best new writing, in any genre.
If you’re looking for a place to start, this edition is wonderful: a look at the ingenuity behind 2020’s new emoji, which had to fit the constraints of an unsettled year.
This edition is also great; it gives you a fairly comprehensive (and therefore dizzying) view of the consideration required for a technology that aspires to universality. (It also includes a paean to the Google blobmoji.)
You get the tiniest sense of the density of issues and opportunities tangled up in emoji design and refinement, and it’s like: HERE IS YOUR LIBERAL ART! Language, culture, politics, engineering, philosophy, actual art… everything.
Here is a 3D model of electricity consumption in Manchester in the early 1950s:
Here are a couple of the constituent cards, each the record of a single day:
This is via Dan Cohen; you might already have deduced that if you enjoy my newsletter, you will also enjoy his.
What a fun collection from Golan Levin: shelters as artworks.
Here’s a roundup of science fiction writers talking about world-building. Kim Stanley Robinson’s view most closely parallels my own:
I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing —
it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.
I wrote this note to myself a while ago and found it again as I was selecting links for this newsletter:
Thinking about links:
the treadmill feeling of like, more links, more links, more links! So many interesting things! It’s a bit numbing.
AT THE SAME TIME, how can you not link? Like selling pizza but never buying beer. Being always a sink and never a source. You need to keep them moving, attention & curiosity.
I truly am not sure what I meant by “selling pizza but never buying beer” but I’m sort of into it?
Following my initial exploration of “non-fungible tokens”, which I wrote about for the Media Lab committee, I did a whole little project centered around the formalization of an odd kind of poem that depends on language, code, and luck.
For me, the NFT part ended up being much less interesting than the poetry part, which is, I think, a good sign.
Here is a wondrous post about real life in Pompeii:
And what we can discover from looking at those remains is that despite what’s written down, the Roman Empire was mostly made up of service workers and slaves who didn’t give a crap about oratory and lost Republican values. They just wanted decent jobs —
maybe at the baker’s or the textile manufacturer’s warehouse — and a good evening meal at the local taberna.
Look: a technical guide to Correcting Television Picture Faults.
I like the idea of some video artist reading this book backwards, as a guide to producing (beautiful) picture faults.
Andy Matuschak’s reflections on his year as an independent researcher are thoughtful and inspiring.
I think Andy is presently one of the great investigators of digital media’s potential. In my view, he’s part of an important intellectual lineage that, though it’s been attenuated at times —
The second season of Dr. Stone has started!
This is an anime series with an extremely high concept: in its first episode, a mysterious force sweeps across Earth, turning every human into a statue. (Animals are untouched.) Thousands of years later, a handful of people are mysteriously returned to fleshly life. The first is the young and brilliant Dr. Stone, who surveys a planet totally rewilded and decides, “I am going to reboot civilization… from scratch.” Then, we watch him do it, step by step.
The show is identifiable as part of an anime sub-genre I love, that doesn’t really exist in any other medium: one that luxuriates in nerdy, detailed descriptions of processes and techniques. Let me expand on this:
Here is one of those beautiful, quixotic toy/game things that can only exist on the web. The top “folder” says universe; just start unfolding at random and you’ll see what I mean. Cosmic. (This is via Matt Webb.)
Look at this short story dispenser that travels from library to library!!
A while back, I received a holiday “life update” from a friend, and instead of a card, it was a little scroll of thermal paper, like a long receipt. The update was concise but/and beautifully written; a pleasure to read. It was, honestly, the best dispatch of that kind I’ve ever received, and now I want to copy the format.
I don’t have a Harpers subscription, so I was happy to have this gloss of Martin Scorsese’s recent essay, in which he discusses streaming platforms, film, and “content”.
A stray thought: the correct 21st-century definition of “content” isn’t “generic media” but rather “the specific kind of media designed for platforms and algorithms”. The clue is that “content creators” exist only on (for?) platforms.
Another: you know it’s “content” if the form is provided by someone else.
It’s obvious there’s a struggle for language here, and anywhere you find that struggle, you know something interesting is going on…
I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the gorgeous and meditative Switch game, verrry slowly for about a year now. If you’ve ever played the game, or if you’re interested in understanding how modern video games are imagined and developed, you absolutely must watch this presentation from Breath of the Wild’s creators at a conference several years ago. It’s charming and surprising and unbelievably impressive.
A nice random internet discovery: Joep Beving performs his song Hanging D. Fans of Nils Frahm will like this, I think.
It feels to me like Saturday Night Live might be entering, or already within, another one of its really good stretches; a deep sense of the absurd has taken root. This segment was my favorite from the most recent episode.
There exists a newsletter, started recently, called 50 Years of Text Games and, why yes, I will subscribe to that.
This edition, on the origin of the epochal Adventure —
Here at the beginning: the breath of the real across the face of the digital waters.
Finally, a selection from the shelves. The siren in the background is, naturally, the Good Book Police on their way over to the lab to confiscate this one:
(Yes, I know they are not footnotes, but endnotes. Comrade… such quibbling is hardly utopian.)
Thanks for reading along with me in this committee. Here on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, we have entered the fair days of spring. I’ve been out and about more —
Sent to the Reading Room committee in March 2021