Some Tangential Thoughts on Books

Small books I’ve produced, offered by Pallas in San Francisco. Photo by Elizabeth Snowden.

A contretemps on Twitter, entirely my fault, surfaced some tangents that I want to explore. The prompting question, “Is this an essay or a book?” led me to think first about the differences in length that prompt choices about form. I then thought of e-books, which in theory can be of any length. Associated with them was a comment by the Seattle bookseller Peter Miller that e-books would separate wheat from chaff, with print getting the former.

Miller’s hopeful prediction, made a dozen years ago, hasn’t panned out. Printed books persist, and publishers and editors remain the main assurance of quality. What’s changed is the rise of short-run printers like Blurb and Lulu, and of self-publishing platforms like Alibris and Amazon. Both make possible a bespoke product in limited quantities unfeasible for web presses.

Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments is a small book by a mainstream press. Some architecture firms use the same format. Below a certain size, small books can be hard to use, but the form of 300 Arguments suits it. A poet friend’s book, issued by a publisher of chapbooks, “is a book,” she assured me, citing its length. A chapbook competition was her only way in.

A friend who writes short stories has mentioned outlets that take very few. Anything not commissioned goes through a similar process, much like competitions with their layers of readers. The bimonthly Poets & Writers is filled with notices for both. Most essays, commissioned or not, appear as articles, but also as pamphlets and as books. What does “book-length” mean for an essay? Longer than an article or paper? Longer than a pamphlet?

The (to me) surprisingly partial migration of books and journals from print to digital is complicated by academic-scientific publishers’ efforts to retain their monopoly on granting the imprimatur they represent. Academic e-books are often rented, and the articles cost the earth. One I contributed could only be accessed 50 times for free, so I made an ungated copy of it, posted on Academia. Others, while honoring these restrictions, make their penultimate drafts available. The problem goes away if you have access through university affiliation, as I do, but such access is temporary. Universities pay for it based on headcount, and some, like my own U.C. Berkeley, have balked at the cost.

Academia and ResearchGate aim to open-source the work of scholars and scientists. In the design fields, there are sites like U.S. Modernist with archives of design journals and magazines that anyone can access. I made a point of getting Design Book Review, the quarterly that Laurie Snowden and I founded/published, onto that wonderful site to make it accessible to the literate design professionals who were our intended audience.

At its height, DBR had a paid per-issue circulation of 4,500 copies, the majority through bookstores and newsstands. (We had about 900 subscribers.) Architectural Record, then the largest U.S. professional monthly, had a paid per-issue circulation of 85,000 copies. Yet, remarkably, DBR — edited by the brilliant Richard Ingersoll and Cathy Lang Ho —was and still is influential beyond its modest print run and relatively short duration. As John Hill wrote in a bibliographic afterword to his retrospective of design book publishing, Buildings in Print (Prestel, 2021),

It was important for me to read reviews of architecture books to ascertain how they were received upon initial publication, and in this regard Design Book Review, which existed for just twenty years (1983–2002) proved to be invaluable. The depths to which contributors reviewed architecture books in DBR is unmatched — before, during, and since.

Twenty years after DBR ceased publication, design book publishing persists, but books per se are no longer the medium the design fields use to put ideas forward. When we started out, there were tabloids like Skyline, journals like Oppositions, and magazines like the revived Arts + Architecture in print, but design books overshadowed them as the focus of discussion and argument. Serious, well-edited journals like Casabella and Domus, Architectural Design, and the AA Files, raised the ante, as did the books of Derrida and Foucault.

Whether this is only an issue for the design fields, I’m not sure. How ideas circulate now, and how and where the arguments they spark occur, I only partly understand. Twitter is a tickertape, as it was called in my childhood: ideas and hot responses of instant, transient currency. Newspapers, having moved online, are part of this. I read literary reviews, and political monthlies and quarterlies, which have a somewhat longer view, and a mix of dailies. Book publishing, more consciously diverse, aims to get past provinciality. We follow authors as we always have, but across a wider range of cultures.

Print’s forms are long established editorial vehicles. Taken seriously, they demand a standard of care on everyone involved — publishers, editors, and writers. Online media, to the extent that it detaches from print and goes its own way, seem more improvisational. This freedom, what Zen calls “one continuous mistake,” is accompanied by made-up rules and conventions, often signs of who’s involved and who the assumed audience is. If it’s interactive, one sometimes learns the ropes while interacting. (Lectures and readings are similar for the one speaking or reading and her audience.)

A standard of care is what links a serious publication to its imagined audience. Print’s forms don’t guarantee anything, but their history shows evidence that such care raises the odds that what results will endure and find audiences beyond the imagined one, whether at the time of issue or later, if the work is rediscovered. Walter Benjamin called this “reception”; Stendhal saw it as a reason to keep writing, although his publishers in Paris had written him off. Prompted by the desire to say something — the urge behind so much in life, it tempers this with care. Such receptivity is creativity’s complement, the follow-through that makes anything good possible. We just have to slow ourselves down and remember both, hunt for the appropriate medium of expression.



Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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