In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.
Every once in a while I come across a book that becomes a regular sight every time I browse in a bookstore. Its subject appeals to me but, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make the journey home. This is no fault of the book — part of the problem of wanting to read most everything is that whatever I’m reading at the moment has often been selected on a whim. As a result, these books become acquaintances that I nod hello to, but that’s where our relationship seems to stall — and this can go on for years. When the planets finally align and that book’s turn to grace my nightstand has arrived, I’m often left with the sense that I really should have started reading it sooner, so that by now I could have read it twice. This is one of those books.
Gleick tackles the history and notion of information in a multidisciplinary fashion. This approach to the information age echoes the cross-disciplinary field of book history (the book as a cultural force, a physical object, a relic of history), but takes things a step further by focusing on information itself (the thing contained in the book) and the ways in which its communication and dissemination shapes it and in turn us and our culture.
He begins with oral cultures and their transmission of information (such as talking drums), then moves on to the shift to the written word and what that did to the notion of information (such as enabling the development of fields like literary criticism by allowing for physical comparisons of texts). Focus then shifts to how revolutions in communication changed information (telegrams, telephones, etc.), as well as the role of information in biology (as in DNA) and quantum physics, and finally computers (regular and quantum) and the future. Along the way Gleick discusses historical figures who were instrumental in their time and set the information technology foundations that we continue to build on today, but about whom I really didn’t know that much. (Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Claude Shannon, to name just a few.) By examining these various fields, you could say that in a way, we are all books that contain and sort and process information. Or, as Gleick more eloquently writes,
Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment.
I wish I could post all the passages I found to be profound and revelatory, but there are simply too many — they filled up the majority of the notebook I used last year. I even went out and bought the paperback edition of this book (even though I already owned the hardcover, with it’s own great cover design), because I knew it would take me a while to read and that I would end up highlighting passages and scribbling notes in the margins (something I haven’t done in years). An inspiring book, and one that I will definitely read again.
I’ll end with a quote from a book that I finished just before starting this one, and which succinctly sums up our dilemma today.
We face in our modern, splintered world not only a crisis in education, but more pointedly a crisis of understanding — of thought and of willingness to engage in thought… Ironically, in our information age, truth is harder to come by because it is so surrounded by facts, slick presentations, and tools of distraction.
YUP! They’re making more! The first batch of the Penguin Threads Deluxe Classics came out in October, and three more titles are going to be released in 2012. This time the covers have been designed by Rachell Sumpter. You can check out the designs on her Flickr, but I’ve also posted them here.
Also, check out this blog entry by Jillian Tamaki, where you can see early drafts of two of her covers, as well as more work-in-progress shots.
For the past few years, I’ve attended the annual Massey lecture when it comes to Toronto. This year marked the first time I had gone without reading the book ahead of time. I really tried with this one: I even purchased five copies of the book so I could own all five unique covers, and had them all signed. And yet, despite suggesting it for my bookclub I could barely start it, much less finish: I only made it half way through the first essay.
A friend sent me this article profiling Gopnik, and I think this quote perfectly sums up my thoughts.
At their best, the Massey Lectures have served as a forum for major thinkers to present the core of their vision, and it’s unclear as yet whether Gopnik as a thinker rather than as an agile stylist has the depth and breadth to meet the high standards the series has established.
Gopnik selected an incredibly general (yet fittingly Canadian) topic and, while he can certainly demonstrate his breadth of knowledge, I’m not sure he has the depth (at least with this book) to strengthen any arguments he makes about winter in our culture. Saying, for example, that explorers conquered the winter of the north when they opted to name geographical features means nothing. The same thing happened in the south, and it happened anywhere that was “discovered” and needed to be named. Also distracting was the introduction dedicated to examining the problem of writing down a lecture that is going to be delivered verbally, yet one that people may read beforehand. Every single Massey lecturer had this problem before you, Gopnik, and they managed to surmount it! For that matter, so do speech writers! Deal with it!
Perhaps I’ll have to wait until there is a fresh layer of snow on the ground to be in the mood to try this one again.
I finally got my hands on the new Penguin Threads books, and they do not disappoint in real life. Designed and created by hand by illustrator Jillian Tamaki, the first three titles in the series are The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, and Emma (and I hope this means there will be more to come!). From the series description:
Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched with needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a stunning and tactile cover treatment. With story, style, and texture, the premiere of Penguin Threads is an exciting new chapter in Penguin’s long history of excellence in book design, for true lovers of the book, design, and handcrafted beauty.
There’s no denying that Penguin has an amazing legacy in terms of design, and I’m glad to see the tradition continues. What would be even more amazing is if one day covers like these would consist of the actual needleworked piece of art, as opposed to a photo representation and some (very well done) embossing to simulate the texture. Certainly handcrafted needlework would still only be possible for artisinal editions of books, but perhaps mass-produced needlework, echoing the original artwork, could be used. After all, as one theory currently goes, the rise in e-books could also mean the rise in the production of books as a physical work of art.
Click through to see the entire covers, front and back, on Jillian Tamaki’s blog. You can also check out the flicker page of Paul Buckley, art director of Penguin US, and see what the inside of each of the three covers looks like. That’s right: they decided to use the reverse of the needlework as the inside of each book cover. A great way to show the amount of work that goes into needlework specifically, and cover art in general.
I love this concept, especially the idea of going back to a handcrafted technique for cover design. The tactile experience you get when you examine these books in real life is definitely one that would be difficult to recreate on an e-reader.
(All images via Jillian Tamaki)
I’ve been intrigued by the D.B. Cooper case since I was little, so of course I had to read this book as soon as it came out. I was a little disappointed with it overall.
Gray does a great job of recreating the hijacking as it happened, but I feel like to write a great book about this event so many years later, you really need to have a solid hypothesis. That’s what Gray lacks — it seems like he’d gladly chase any lead, no matter how remote. However, the book does leave you with a good overview of the case and its suspects as they currently stand, as well as a decent bibliography of older titles to refer to. And, of course, the cover design is clever.
Solar flares and rising water levels result in a dystopian future where the majority of the world is submerged under water and only the poles are inhabitable (unless you’re on a boat). Moreover, the increase in temperature means that the world is reverting back to the primordial swamp it used to be, with insects and reptiles growing larger and dominating other species.
Amid this landscape, three people decide to stay in submerged London, living in skyscraper hotels that are above the water line or a floating science station, as opposed to returning to the north with the military expedition team of which they were a part.
Ballard explores the possibility of devolving, or the reaction of the human mind to revert to its prehistoric past form (form? memory? sense of self?) when faced with a physical environment that echoes that past. Thus, the three main characters can no longer stand the thought of living in concrete buildings and communicating with other humans — each lives within his or her own mind and its subconscious memories.
An interesting concept, and written in a style that suits it. The story doesn’t really aim to be more than it is, and the style is slow and full of descriptions that help to set the scene. This isn’t one to read if you’re looking for an action packed dystopian thriller, but rather a more psychological one. (Characters often just sit around all day, staring at the surrounded lagoons and absorbing the rhythmical beats of the sun as it shines.) This would be great to read on a beach somewhere, around noon, with the sun beating down on you and glaring from waves on the water. As long as there are no giant lizards around.
Also, I really enjoy this redesign of Ballard’s book covers from HarperCollins.
A wonderful anthology of crime fiction from the gaslight/Victorian era. All the stories tend to have a the criminal as their focus, as opposed to the detective or police chasing them. Michael Sims writes an excellent introduction that helps to set the scene and provide you with context for the stories, and he even offers a great reading guide in case you want to explore the authors or topic of mystery novels in greater depth. Not only that, but each story begins with a short biography of it’s author, again to better place each story in context.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, what I love most about this book is the cover. It’s so simple, yet so appropriate and funny! Here is an interview with Jaya Miceli, who drew the illustration. The idea originated with Penguin Creative Director Paul Buckley, and Jen Wang was responsible for the cover design.
It seems like Sims has a lot more to say on the subject, because this year Penguin released The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime. This is definitely on my to-read list. It has another fantastic cover, also illustrated by Jaya Miceli (although she is credited on the back as “Jaya Micelli”)* and I’m positive that this book will be as good as Gaslight Crime. Review to come!
*I don’t mean to point out publishing errors maliciously. Rather, having made them myself, I take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one!