Friday, January 30, 2009
Books, Musical Comedians, Dead Comedians, and Upcoming Changes

I've been putting off posting. Not for lack of subjects, but rather because at the moment, my subjects are just a random assortment without any connection other than their cohabitation inside my head. I ask your indulgence.

I want to talk about books. Not any specific books, but books as a general concept. I've happily discovered that spending much of my time unhappily surrounded by books hasn't diminished my love for the books themselves in the least. It hasn't even diminished my love of bookstores, although I'll always be a little more circumspect in them now. But handling books all day every day has led me to one sad conclusion: the vast majority of them are crap.

Again, I don't mean the contents of the books -- a lot of that part is crap, too, but that's not what I'm getting at. I mean, the physical objects themselves are poorly made and badly designed. Every book, of course, is more than the sum of its physical parts, but often the parts are woefully unworthy of a book's contents.

What I'm saying is, why is it so hard to find a beautifully made, beautifully designed book? Even among the expensive hardcovers, the actual structure of a book seems to be an afterthought. All of the effort is put into designing a flashy dustjacket (and I still don't understand what the physical point of a dustjacket is -- it certainly doesn't do much to protect a book from dust) and almost none into making the book itself anything special.

There are exceptions. The various volumes published under the McSweeney's label are always interesting, and they put a lot of effort into design. Around Christmas I picked up a copy of Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me, and it's one of my favorite books this year. I still drool over the detailed design of Chris Ware's bigger releases, which to my mind are what every book should aspire to be. I understand that some books are only designed to be practical, and I certainly understand that people are less and less willing to fork out much money for books. But these days a full-color dustjacket has replaced any effort to create really handsome, well-constructed books. And so many books deserve better.

I think about this against the backdrop of declining book sales and the presumed rise of electronic books (eventually, anyway.) I've gotten to play around with all of the current electronic reader type thingies, and so far they've got a hell of a long way to go. But I'm certain that before much longer someone will finally figure out how to do it right, and more text will be read on electronic devices. They make a lot of sense for some things -- for reference texts where a search function would be a key benefit; for cheap, light reading where the paper-and-glue book itself is merely a disposable medium; for reading newspaper and magazine articles, etc. And a lot of people, given a comfortable electronic device from which to read, would probably do almost all of their reading that way. But I have trouble believing that electronic readers will really spell the end of paper books. Digital music, after all, is simple and portable and cheap; and yet vinyl record albums are now the medium of choice for people who really love and care about music.

It seems to me that the rise of electronic readers could similarly provoke a resurgence in fine publishing -- of really beautiful books designed and built for their own aesthetic appeal as well as a housing for their content. If I were a writer with all options available, I think it would obviously be a smart move to release books in any viable electronic format, and ideally with an option for cheap, disposable paperback editions. But for readers who really care about books, it has to be hand-printed, hand-bound volumes.

Hey, look: here's a really good blog about book design.

So, remember that Tim Minchin piece I linked to a couple of weeks ago? The one with crap audio quality that disappeared almost immediately afterwards? Well, he's recorded it properly, and here it is, complete with jazz-esque musical accompaniment. Something about his meter reminds me of Philip Larkin.

I don't go for the "funny musician" school of comedy. A dude with a guitar singing humorous songs is one of the things I typically turn off about thirty seconds in. And yet it's so in the ascendancy right now it's hard not to catch a few who aren't completely hopeless. I'm not on the Flight of the Conchordes bandwagon -- they're fine, and they do what they do well enough that I can appreciate the joke. But I can't call myself a big fan. I'm all but required by social obligation to be up-to-date on Jonathan Coulton references, but it's my choice to associate with nerds so I don't complain. And Zach Galifianakis -- does he even count?

Regardless, I do like Tim Minchin, though I like him a bit better when he's reciting rather than singing. Singing creeps me out a little.

Finally, with the arrival of February I'll have been living in this house for ten months of the twelve I originally promised, so it's time to decide whether I'll stay here or pick up and move somewhere else. There's a lot to like about this spot, but there have been issues -- only minor issues, but enough of them that I don't much care to stay on. So it looks as though over the next couple of months I'll be moving again. I have a friend, Liliana, whom I've known almost as long as I've lived in Portland, who's roughly my age and of a similar philosophy when it comes to what makes a pleasant household. So she and I are going to be getting a place, probably in approximately this part of town. I'm both dreading it and looking forward to it -- I hate the physical act of moving, but it would feel really good to finally live in a place that's my home as much as anyone else's. That was the idea when I moved in here, but the dynamics of moving into a space that's been occupied by your roommates for a long time just doesn't allow for real sharing of space -- they're too entrenched to make much room, and the room I'm allotted isn't quite enough.

Mostly, I don't want to stay here, but contemplating the stress of moving in with another group of strangers exhausts me. I don't regret any of the strangers I've lived with so far -- they've all been good people, and we've always gotten along. But Liliana is a quantity well-enough known that the prospect of yet another household negotiation isn't too daunting. She's a little more loud where I'm quiet, a little more outgoing where I'm reserved. But she's stable, grounded, disinclined to take bullshit, we agree on all the major details of sharing a house, and we're friends, with many other friends in common. So I'm not worried; we'll work it out.

PS: One other way to know that the world has finally begun to head back in the right direction: David Letterman finally aired that old Bill Hicks segment he cut all those many years ago, and publicly apologized to his mom. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
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Amy :: permalink
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