Robin Sloan
The Society
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 😋


Sent to the Society in January 2021