Monthly Archives: December 2006

Inspired Imitation

On Monday, I attended an event at the 92nd Y on the Upper East Side called The Art of the Book which featured presentations from world-renowned designer Milton Glaser, superstar book cover designer Chip Kidd, and McSweeney’s founder and rising literary star Dave Eggers. Watching the slideshow presentations and attentively listening to each speaker’s commentary, I began to itch with a desire to sit alone in my own space and make something, anything. I was particularly impressed with Dave Eggers and his ability to embrace constraints and to even flourish as a result. It was refreshing to hear from a designer who didn’t worship the Mac or seek out the latest Adobe tools. Eggers had held on to his Quark 4.1 since starting McSweeney’s in 1998 and spoke of his 56kbps Internet connection. But as a person who seems to be bursting with creativity and new ideas, it looks like he needed all kinds of constraints to help narrow his focus and find a way to keep things simple.

Today, I found myself still itching to make something. I had been editing a bunch of old writings recently in an effort to hopefully put them into print form, but as with many large self-initiated projects, I knew there would be endless delays and procrastination. I wanted to make something on the spot. Something that would gain so much momentum that I would not be able to stop until I was finished. So I decided to take one of my old stories and turn it into a 16-page book.

I had been tinkering with Adobe InDesign the last couple of days, so I was a bit more familiar going into today’s endeavor. Also, I was luckily hit with a clear image of what the cover design should be. I heeded Chip Kidd’s advice of avoiding an obvious cover and tried to be subtle yet interesting with the cover photo. And after learning about how Eggers only used Garamond for McSweeney’s, I decided to go one-typeface with Adobe Caslon. I ended up using Caslon in various forms – italics, all caps, spaced out, large and small. I was very pleased.

Three or four hours went by in a blur, and by the end, I found myself sitting with a book in my hand. Of course, this would be only one part of the project. The other part would be a web page that captured the publishing process. It would require good photos, step-by-step instructions, and an easy-to-follow layout. The result can be seen right here. And the final part, of course, is this entry being written right now. Even the single homemade copy needs good PR.

Today’s exercise was a much needed relief and a good dose of productivity away from work. Being self-employed and handling a number of client projects, I’ve found myself stressed out by the daily worries of deadlines, finances, and the future. But to suspend time and lose myself in an activity like self-publishing really helps to put things in perspective: worry less about the peripheral details and learn to enjoy doing the tasks for what they are. And I have to admit, I’m lucky to be doing the things that interest me. I just need the occasional injection of inspiration.

Favorite Books: 2006

It’s that time of year again, when newspapers, magazines, and blog posts get caught up in list-mania, hoping to grab the attention of readers with all sorts of subjective “top whatever” lists. And because I am easily swayed by mass media and often find myself caught up in things, I too will throw my pennies into the fountain of year-end lists. My topic: five favorite books of 2006. Not published in 2006 (although one of them is), but books, mostly ficition and contemporary, that I found immensely enjoyable and at times inspiring and insightful as well. The selections were made from the 24 books I read from January to November.

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte
I haven’t read too many books that I can truly call funny, but this is definitely one of them. Lewis Miner, nicknamed Teabag, hasn’t fared too well since his high school graduation of 1989. He writes a series of long (never-to-be-published) letters to the Eastern Valley High School Alumni bulletin, in which he reveals his angst, his sympathies, his bitterness, and a cutting view of status, success, and suburban life that spares no one. Seeing through the eyes of a lovable “loser” makes you really wonder who the true phonies and losers are.

Oracle Night by Paul Auster
I thought it would be unfair to list two Paul Auster books on a top five list (although having read five of his books this year made it tough), so I chose Oracle Night, one of his more recent work (published 2003) and one that follows the familiar Auster format of tortured writer stumbling upon strange and potentially disastrous knowledge. Sidney Orr, a Brooklyn-based novelist, is recovering from a near-fatal accident. He buys a curious blue notebook in hopes of writing again. What follows is a series of mysterious and unexplainable occurrences that change Orr’s life forever. Hope you’ll enjoy coming across the stories-within-stories-within-stories that Auster likes to use in many of his novels as much as I did.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Hailed as the top English (as in, the Queen’s) novel by the UK Guardian in the past 25 years, Disgrace was also awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Fifty-two year-old Professor David Laurie has an affair with a student which forever tarnishes his reputation. He escapes the big-city scrutiny and moves in with his daughter Lucy in rural South Africa. All is well until a violent incident leaves both father and daughter shaken and their relationship perhaps damaged beyond repair. Coetzee’s prose is economical yet so powerful and silky smooth – it’s a novel that’ll take a few hours to read and many days to really digest.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
A birthday bash thrown somewhere in South America in honor of a powerful Japanese businessman turns into a potentially deadly hostage situation. However, a long, drawn-out stand by an almost reluctant group of terrorists leads to the development of an interesting community in which opera, music, and language play vital roles in defining the relationships among the hostages and captors. Hostage stories are nothing new, and probably more common than ever with TV shows like Standoff and The Nine, but Patchett does an incredible job jumping from character to character and really getting at the core of their thoughts without losing momentum.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
This is my only nonfiction selection, which isn’t a surprise because I haven’t read much nonfiction in the past year. This improbable story about Michael Oher, an oversized kid from the inner city of Memphis, follows his journey towards football stardom and comes fully-equipped with tear-jerker moments that include warm Christian hearts and the perseverance of a rich Evangelical family. But feel-good anecdotes aside, what makes this good Michael Lewis writing are the insights into the history of the left tackle position in pro football and the clarity with which he probes the socio-economic condition of America that made a Michael Oher story even possible.