Tag Archives: Typography

Best Bedside Books 2012

Well, it’s the time of year for lists, lots of lists:  best and worst, most important, so on and so forth, lists of ten things that characterize the passing year in one way or another. I’ll do my part with a best books list, with a qualification:  these are titles that were published in 2012 which I consider to be essential for bedtime reading, or bedtime reference, to be more precise. I do like to read in bed before I sleep, but I drop off quite rapidly, so I need a quick hit of compelling information, and/or some visual stimulation, before I’m gone. I’ve given up fiction altogether for this purpose, and I never read any sort of academic history later at night:  my bedside books need to be “dippable”; I will pick up one or the other from the stack–too tall for the bedside table–and dip into it every other night or so, in order to see or learn something before I fall asleep (books that do not perform these services leave the stack rather quickly). Several amazing natural histories were published this year which are perfect for this purpose, so I’ll start with them.

Natural Histories cover

Natural Histories. Extraordinary Selections from the Rare Book Archive of the American Museum of Natural History Library. Edited by Tom Baione.  Sterling Signature, 2012.

Nothing fascinates me more than the merger of art and science and this first book illustrates that historical merger in an extraordinary way. It is the ultimate gift and coffee table book, as it comprises a collection of historical sources relating to every branch of natural history from anthropology to zoology, succinct yet substantive contextual essays, and lots of images, as well as frame-ready prints, but it is also incredibly informative and inspirational. Similar in its historical range and the compelling nature of its images is the National Library of Medicine’s Hidden Treasure, and rather more whimsical (yet still empirical) is Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.  A 21st Century Bestiary. These books are just visual feasts, and I also learn something every time I pick them up.

Hidden Treasure

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Hidden Treasure:  the National Library of Medicine.  Edited by Michael Sappol.  Blast Books, 2012; The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson.  Granta Books, 2012.

I’ve been interested in folklore for quite some time, and an amazing new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published this year: this bicentennial edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm was edited and annotated by Maria Tatar, Chair of the Program in Mythology and Culture at Harvard.  It really is a definitive edition, and also includes many classic illustrations.  There’s nothing better than reading Grimm fairy tales before you fall asleep:  food for dreams!

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The Bicentennial Edition of the Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar.  W.W. Norton, 2012.

I always have architecture and design books in my bedside stack, also good for dreaming, and the ones I purchased this year are American Decoration by Thomas Jayne and London Hidden Interiors by Phillip Davies.  Their titles are self-explanatory. I love Jayne’s traditional style, and with its 180 properties and 1200 photographs, Hidden Interiors is positively encyclopedic.

Book Jayne

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American Decoration:  A Sense of Place, by Thomas Jayne. Monacelli Press, 2012. London Hidden Interiors, Phillip Davies. An English Heritage Book, Atlantic Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

Both art history and history texts seldom function well as bedside books, as they require a bit more sustained concentration. If they are far removed from my academic interests, sometimes I can make them work out of sheer ignorance/ interest and curiosity (or if they have relatively short chapters!)  Right now I have two books in these categories by my bed, both very recently published:  Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art, which is the companion volume to the exhibition that’s on right now at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and Todd Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, which presents a narrative of the American Revolution through contemporary newspaper reports, including several from the Salem Gazette.

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Reporting

Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art. Yale University Press, 2012; Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War. Before it was History, it was News.  Sourcebooks, 2012.

Salem is a “walkable city”, and I think more places in car-obsessed America should be walkable cities, which is why I purchased urban planner Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. I’m learning a lot from this book, but I do think it is better read in the daytime rather than just before bed. And last but not least, a perfect bedside book that my brother just gave me for Christmas:  Simon Garfield’s Just My Type. A Book about Fonts. This was actually published in 2010, but I also have another Garfield book that was published this year, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, (Gotham) so together they can fill out my top ten list.  Typography and cartography: two very interesting, yet contained topics.  Perfect for end-of-day reading.

Walkable City

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Jeff Speck, Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; Simon Garfield, Just my Type. A Book about Fonts. Gotham reprint, 2012.


Utopia, not Dystopia

Last week was a bit unnerving, unsettling, disconcerting.  Not only because of the unseasonably warm weather, but also because of a word (or two):  dystopia or dystopian.  The opposite of utopia, not a perfect, elusive place, often in the future, but rather a repressive and hostile place, definitely in the future, where individual freedoms are subjected to some all-powerful system. Whenever I was near a radio or a television,  I kept hearing that word, at least 20 times, more than I have ever heard that word in my life.  The primary contexts for the word were reviews of the Hunger Games film, set in a decidedly dystopian future, and related stories about the popularity of dystopian themes in young adult fiction, which is itself disconcerting.

As is always the case when things are not just quite right for me, I retreat to the past.  What better way to counter dystopia in the present than with some utopias of the past?  I really don’t know that much about ancient history, so I skipped the Garden of Eden, the Isles of the Blessed and Elysian Fields and went back to the Renaissance Utopia, Thomas More’s 1516 book, and then moved forward, more happily, toward the present.

Early Modern Utopias:  More’s Utopia, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Bartolomea del Bene’s City of Truth (1609), and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624).

As you can see (you’ll have to take my word on the cropped Bacon image), all of these utopias are self-contained islands or cities, apart from the corrupt world, and their very existence is a commentary on that world.  It’s also very interesting to me that in these four works, two written by Englishmen and two by Italians, a distinct nationalistic vision of utopia has emerged:  More and Bacon have located their utopias on islands and Campanella’s and del Bene’s utopias are walled cities.  The Italians seem to think they can find utopia through urban planning, which was both an artistic and a logistical enterprise. Not only did the Italian Renaissance inspire and create paintings like Piero della Francesca’s Ideal City (c. 1470) but also the Venetian “development” of Palmanova in 1593, a real “ideal city”.

With the coming of industrialization in the modern era, cities could not possibly be utopian.  The ideal life/world could now only be found in a long-lost Arcadian past or a pastoral enclave in the present.  American utopianism in the nineteenth-century seems to be best represented by the romantic landscapes of the Hudson River Valley school, like Thomas Cole’s Dream of Arcadia below, and social experiments like Brook Farm here in Massachusetts, where Nathaniel Hawthorne spent a few (apparently miserable) months in 1841.  A young and struggling writer at the time, Nathaniel clearly did not find his utopia at Brook Farm:  too much manure.

Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, 1838. Denver Art Museum.

Joseph Wolcott, Brook Farm with Rainbow, 1845. Massachusetts Historical Society.

I’m not sure how the quest for utopia has fared in the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first.  Have we given up on it?  Are utopian ideas and ideals so personal that we don’t have a collective cultural vision?  Is is all about dystopia?  At least in the first part of the century, and despite the dreadful First World War, the Bauhaus movement was definitely driven by utopian ideals as well as the passion for modernism and the desire to integrate art, design and technology.  All of these goals are exemplified by the title and the typography of their publications from the early twenties:  the volumes of  Utopia:  Dokumente der Wirklichkeit (Utopia: Documents of Reality) were designed by Oskar Schlemmer in a style that still looks modern today.

An etching by the American artist Peter Larsen from just about the same time as the beginning of the Bauhaus School shows a decidedly more inaccessible Utopia, like that of Thomas More.  So we’re right back where we began, with those who believe that Utopia is within reach, or at least worth striving for, and those that believe it’s just a fantasy.

Peter Larsen, Utopia,1919. Smithsonian American Art Museum.


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