This peculiar article caught my eye last week. A reader of the Paris Review asks for advice about how to build their library and how to start reading the very best of literature; from all across the various classics over the centuries to the flood of modern authors, journalists and bloggers of today. But it was the demonstration of sheer thirst that stopped me in my tracks:
Ultimately these sorts of questions shape how we read, so adjusting to the discrepancies and absences as a library grows is all part of the fun. By thinking about the genres or topics that we’re reading or the variety of authors (their gender, their ethnicity, their prominence in history or culture) we measure not only the current health of our bookshelves today, but we also start mapping our future libraries and fine tuning their voluminosity in the years to come.
The American writer and editor John Sullivan argues otherwise, however, as he believes that the planning comes secondary to the reading. In his reply to those questions he tries to put the reader’s mind at ease:
This had me thinking about those articles that examine books, such as reviews, and how they’re deceptively useful. Most of my own library for example originated from links that I stumbled on whilst browsing the footnotes of a great article, or Twitter, or Instapaper or in blog posts by friends. Consequently it was with great pleasure that this article in the Paris Review inspired me to look back and answer some of my own questions about what we should read and when.
Recently I’ve found that a number of books have dipped in and out of conversations whilst others have managed to weave their way into my thoughts on a daily basis, almost involuntarily. I want to talk about those books here, those books that linger – permanent, sticky items of my library. Now they might not contain terribly practical advice or easy-to-apply steps or rules about the topic but they tend to push their individual conversations into places that I had no idea existed. Best of all, each of them in turn are written by brilliantly smart writers. So here goes…
The Humane Interface
by Jef Raskin
Focusing primarily on the psychological aspects of interface design and published all the way back in 2000, The Humane Interface is the best thing I’ve ever read about designing software. The author’s merging interests in design and philosophy captured my attention from the very beginning, as even when he disregards over zealous language in describing what an interface or a computer should hope to achieve, he appears to look for the underlying, philosophical roots of all this digital work.
From the use of icons and metaphors to habit forming commands and button gradients, Raskin expertly pinpoints the successes and failures of modern interfaces. Interestingly enough he also makes predictions in the book that are eerily close to the developments of recent years, but I’ll try not to spoil the book too much as I must have shouted “fuck yeah!” over a dozen times whilst reading it and so I leave the best bits to plunder for yourself, dear reader. For a primer into the work of this brilliant polymath, head on over to the wonderful and heartbreaking eulogy of Raskin’s life before you begin.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
by Italo Calvino
Published in 1971 by the Italian author Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel broken up into individual, loosely threaded tales about the missing chapters of a book. These tales weave their way in and out of the narrative whilst giving Calvino an excuse to joyfully describe his love of stories, books and most of all, the paradox that sits in the middle; how reading can be both an act of connectivity and isolation.
It’s a novel about storytelling, about words and characters and beginnings and how to thread a story together and where to cut the trailing fibers. It’s a story that’s told almost entirely in the second person and if I were to quote one section of the book I’d likely end up rewriting the entire thing, copying it all out word for word. To put it simply, the book is essential reading for anyone even mildly interested in telling stories.
by James Gleick
Found in the stream of brilliance that is Mandy Brown’s working library, The Information is a history of data, machines and code. Gleick focuses on the innovative and spellbinding events of how communication has developed, but he also questions their knock on effects within a culture. Whilst If on a winter’s night a traveller focuses on the reading, this book primarily deals with all of the processes leading up to and surrounding it.
Unlike the previous books mentioned here though, The Information is much broader in scale and doesn’t solely examine a particular medium or format. The author dives head first into historical accounts and unsuccessful technologies and reveals so many useful insights for any designer, reader or general enthusiast to brain-munch on for months after reading.
Close to the Machine
by Ellen Ullman
So I haven’t read this novel on programming and computers yet but I feel the need to talk about it since what I’ve read appears to share so many similarities with what I’ll read. The novel is written by Ellen Ullman, who was a programmer before she became a novelist, so her bio had peeked my curiosity before I had even heard of her book. But it was this excellent review by the writer and developer Paul Ford that’s pushed it to the top of my to-read list.
Here the writer describes how Ullman’s book encouraged him to think about the ties between human and computer languages:
How on earth can I avoid this book now? It seems that all of the books I’ve been reading lately have been swirling around this other book, caught in its gravitational field. Their common themes are tangled up in each other so strongly that, afterwards, I think a detour of some description might be necessary. Maybe something entirely different, like an unwieldy history of biology perhaps, or a brief side step around the field of astronomy, or a Frank Miller comic, or the Chip Kidd book about monkeys, or a…