Thursday, December 29, 2005

My Mix CDs for 2005

Last year, I got a Best of 2004 mix CD exchange going with some of my music loving friends (and friends of friends). This was hot on the heels of a period when I was making mix CDs all of the time. I had a regular monthly exchange going with one friend (now sadly defunct) and was randomly making CDs for friends and family, for holidays, moving, whatever. I had made an early and imperfect Best of 2003 mix CD -- which, I think, was actually burned only once, and only one person besides my girlfriend has ever heard -- and I figured having a kind of CD exchange with friends would be a good way to ensure quality and share lots of new songs, albums, and bands. And it was.

But a funny thing happened in 2005. Apart from a few aborted attempts, I stopped making mix CDs. This was especially strange, since I finally had a car, where CD-length mixes really do come in handy. But I'd stopped exchanging with friends, and I had less and less success coming up with new ideas for mixes. Most of my 2004 mix CDs were concept- or genre-driven: a two-disc post-rock primer, or an album loosely structured around a theme taken from a song lyric or title. Besides a good tweak of my 2004 freak-folk mix ("The Hard-to-Find Stations on the AM Band," after a lyric in The Mountain Goats's "Jaipur"), I was coming up dry.

Instead, and not long into the year, I was listening to lots of new music and filing away songs for my 2005 mix. I had no theme or musical style in mind -- limiting an album to songs released in a calendar year is usually enough of a constraint to get started. But in September -- about two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast -- I had it.

Entirely by accident, or with the benefit of hindsight -- take your pick -- I had been putting together an album of songs from 2005, all released before Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath -- that seemed to be about the hurricane. Lines in songs I'd listened to a dozen times and ignored now had new relevance.

"I've lost my house. You've lost your house.
I don't suppose it matters which way we go.
This great society is going smash."
(The Books, "Be Good to Them Always")

"It's so cold in this house
The open mouth swallowing us.
The children sent home from school --
One won't stop crying.
And I know that you're busy too,
But do I know that you care?
You got your finger on the pulse,
You got your eyes everywhere,
And it hurts all the time when you don't return my calls
And you haven't got the time to remember how it was."
(Bloc Party, "Like Eating Glass")

"Sit down, honey, let's hang around.
We'll wreck their precious, their perfect town."
(Sleater-Kinney, "What's Mine Is Yours")

"She got screwed up by her vision,
It was scary when she saw him;
She didn't tell a single person
About the camps on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Lord, to be seventeen forever."
(The Hold Steady, "Stevie Nix")

The most uncanny of all was Archer Prewitt's "Way of the Sun." Prewitt's album Wilderness came out in January, and I had been listening to it semi-regularly for most of the year. I thought that "Way of the Sun," the first track, was the most beautiful on the album, a soft and shimmering gem with haunting but (I thought) fairly abstract imagery. Here are the lyrics:

Hello, my sweetheart
Hold still until they pass by
No, don't let them see you
They'll take what's left of our lives

Too late for the cameras
Everything's right
All the people are hiding,
Burn through the night
Please, what's the reason?
Say goodbye
All our lives are all on burning paper

We can get by on the candles
We can survive if we ration it right
It's the last of the candles
Let me take one more look at your eyes

We awoke in the morning
Caught by surprise
A helicopter was hovering
Up in the sky
Please, please believe me
I'd give my life

(Ave Maria)

I feel that it's over
We can go by the way of the sun
We can go by the way of the sun
I feel that it's over
We can go by the way of the sun
In the weeks after Katrina, it seemed less like a song than a first-person account. And other songs that didn't seem to reference Katrina at all had a new resonance. The Decemberists' "On the Bus Mall" was about two hustler/prostitutes... from New Orleans. Feist's "Mushaboom," with its idyllic wintry vision of children, suddenly seemed more poignant and insecure: its "rented house" and wait for "dreams to match up with my pay" came from a family relocated to Utah. What was really bizarre was that the music was changing the way I thought about Katrina -- I cared less about the storm itself, how the media covered it, or which awful politicians to deserved the most blame. Music written before the hurricane ever happened was giving me a better appreciation of the full human drama of thousands of people who'd lost their homes, who were angry, tired, but still hopeful to rebuild.

Once I had the theme, then it was easy to decide which songs to keep and which to let go. But the hurricane wasn't the only story I had found in the music. I'll tell the next story... in my next post.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Best Albums of 2005

Not long after Pitchfork came out with their Top 50 Albums of 2005, I started working on my own list. Well, actually, I just put it together in the last ten minutes. So I don't know if I will wind up absolutely standing by the particular rankings I've made. But mostly, I can't entirely believe that I bought, borrowed, streamed and/or downloaded this many albums this year.

In case long-term readers of Short Schrift are wondering, I'm sticking with my premature claim that Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the album of the year. Bird got ignored by Pitchfork and lots of other critics' list this year, and if nothing else, that convinced me to come down heavy in his favor. It really is a phenomenal album, and I lived with it this year like nothing else I heard.

In general, I think albums released early in the year -- particularly albums released to some fanfare (although on this count, I don't think Bird qualifies) -- tend to slide farther down the lists than they'd appear if they were released later in the year. For example, if Bloc Party's Silent Alarm had been released in October instead of January, I think it would have been in more top tens instead of 25s, and would definitely have beaten less potent releases by Franz Ferdinand and Maximo Park. Franz Ferdinand actually had the same problem in 2004.

Not only is there a problem with eventual critical backlash, but I think critics tend to get tired of listening to some albums, and musical trends that seemed vital at one moment begin to wear thin later. If anything, my list has the opposite prejudice. Albums released in the last four months of the year had a harder time breaking into my rotation of favorites, both because earlier albums had already secured their places and because I just had less time to concentrate (and money to spend) on music, at least until the very end of the year. (Plus, I made my first best-of-2005 mix CD way early, which locked out albums released later.) So albums like Animal Collective's Feels and even Kanye West's Late Registration (which I heard in entirety on release but didn't pick up until much later) are probably lower on this list than they deserve to be, or at least as they would if I listened to them on repeat four or five more times.

But I don't pretend that this list is anything but subjective. Its quirks and vagaries are mine, too.

1 Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs - Andrew Bird
2 Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
3 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
4 Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
5 In Case We Die - Architecture in Helsinki
6 Gimme Fiction - Spoon
7 A River Ain't Too Much to Love - Smog
8 The Sunset Tree - The Mountain Goats
9 Apologies to the Queen Mary - Wolf Parade
10 Separation Sunday - The Hold Steady
11 Twin Cinema - The New Pornographers
12 Late Registration - Kanye West
13 Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene
14 Feels - Animal Collective
15 Picaresque - The Decemberists
16 The Woods - Sleater-Kinney
17 Tender Buttons - Broadcast
18 Strange Geometry - The Clientele
19 I Am A Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons
20 Alligator - The National
21 Bang Bang Rock n' Roll - Art Brut
22 Pixel Revolt - John Vanderslice
23 You Could Have It So Much Better - Franz Ferdinand
24 Arular - M.I.A.
25 Z - My Morning Jacket
26 LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
27 Let It Die - Feist
28 Lost and Safe - The Books
29 Transistor Radio - M. Ward
30 Get Behind Me Satan - The White Stripes
31 Oh You're So Silent Jens - Jens Lekman
32 Cripple Crow - Devendra Banhart
33 Superwolf - Bonnie Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney
34 Chaos and Creation in the Backyard - Paul McCartney
35 Face the Truth - Stephen Malkmus
36 A Certain Trigger - Maximo Park
37 EP - The Fiery Furnaces
38 Thunder Lightning Strike - The Go! Team
39 The Best Party Ever - The Boy Least Likely To
40 Wilderness - Archer Prewitt
41 Nice and Nicely Done - The Spinto Band
42 Extraordinary Machine - Fiona Apple
43 Set Yourself on Fire - Stars
44 The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers
45 Plans - Death Cab for Cutie
46 Who's Your New Professor - Sam Prekop
47 The Runners Four - Deerhoof
48 Year of Meteors - Laura Veirs
49 The Alternative to Love - Brendan Benson
50 Guero - Beck

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

News and Genre

Newspapers have genres (e.g., student, entertainment, state fair, socialist) and journalism has genres (not just food, entertainment, and op-ed, but also things like reportage, analysis, and punditry). Soon, though cable news may be developing its own system of genre as codified, well-worn, and viewer-driven as anything in broadcast television drama.

The latest? Planes in trouble, says Reuters. They're the new high-speed car chase.

Northwestern University Professor of Journalism George Harmon writes: "My personal theory is that some stories on TV beget similar stories: Shark attacks, wildfires and missing blond girls ... the format has been established."

The twin keys to emerging news genres seems to be 1) similarity to other preexisting dramatic genres (soap operas, cop shows, movies about war/politics) and 2) the photo- or videogenic quality of the story. In other words, TV news likes stories that make good television.

One speculative point I'd like to raise, aside from just demonizing the degradation of television news, etc.: I wonder whether we're moving away from a culture of the media event (coronations, funerals, weddings, and other rituals; the Moon Landing; one-off scripted live events, like the Academy Awards; sports championships) and more deeply into a culture of unscripted but serial media (political scandals, murder investigation and trials, Terry Schiavo). This might say something not just about changes in the way we digest news and politics, but also in how we treat media as such, and the interaction between this and our changing lives and mediascape. But I'm not entirely sure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Even SNL Brings the Funny

If you haven't seen it yet, the Chronicles of Narnia video-rap sketch (aka "Lazy Sunday") from this past week's Saturday Night Live is worth checking out. It's available at YouTube and on the SNL site above. Boing Boing also has a post with some background on Lonely Island, the comedy team that wrote and produced the sketch w/Chris Parnell (which also includes Andy Samberg, the other star of the sketch and now a featured player on SNL. Andy Samberg is apparently also sometimes called "Ardy" -- which is neither here nor there, but confused the hell out of me).

Before hooking up w/SNL, Lonely Island started out as a Creative Commons-licensed comedy group who wrote primarily web shorts. One of these was The 'Bu, an insane parody of The O.C. produced for Channel 101 -- later home to the beloved Yacht Rock. (Thanks again, LPS.)

I don't know what any of this says about the continued rise of decentered digital entertainment, and its inevitability or freak-occurence nature of its synthesis with traditional media and entertainment gatekeepers. It is, however, a curious triangulation of new, clever, and often very funny stuff.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Triangle in Green (and Orange)

What's the best way to tell that the United States is a politically backwards place? It's not that our President thinks torture and open-ended warrant-free surveillance aren't just useful but also legal -- but hey, good guess.

No, it's that today, Northern Ireland began recognizing gay unions. Northern Ireland? Homosexuality wasn't even legal in Northern Ireland 25 years ago. In the Catholic parts, contraception is still frowned upon. Not that the Protestants are much better -- as the AP writer notes, "Here, Roman Catholics and Protestants sometimes overcome their political hostility to protest jointly on traditional family issues." These people don't overcome their hostility to one another to celebrate Christmas.

Northern Ireland -- despite all of its problems, divisions, and fierce religious and moral opposition -- somehow figured out how to make unions for gay couples work. And despite what seemed like a brief and hopeful window for Americans a few years ago, we're not even close.

Excuse me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

How Can Media Change Politics?

I recently came across a new and (I think) noteworthy web site covering the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral election: The Next Mayor. It's a well-edited multimedia site with stories from WHYY (the local public radio/public television station) and the Philadelphia Daily News, the region's #2 news paper, after the Inquirer, both of which are owned -- at least for now -- by Knight Ridder. The two papers also share a building and an integrated online presence at

The third player behind The Next Mayor is a group called The Committee of 70, a watchdog/501 (c)3 group now headed up by Zack Stalberg, who used to run the daily News. Here's a selection from their new mission statement:

Seventy is best known as the city’s dependable watchdog during election time. Although we will continue to focus on trustworthy elections, we are actively branching out into direct advocacy, aggressive research efforts and large-scale civic education programs. Recently, for instance, Seventy has focused on legislation aimed at curtailing the contract awarding practice known as “pay-to-play,” on openness in government and on changing the random and sometimes corrupt process by which Philadelphians select judges.

At critical moments over the last 101 years, the Committee of Seventy has stepped forward to stimulate reform and help drive Philadelphia ahead. We are at it again.
The Next Mayor seems to be an important part of that. I also like the "Help Wanted" sign at that web page: "Fifth-largest city in the nation seeks motivated cheerleader type for mayor... Inspiring leadership, unquestioned integrity, knowledge of the issues, vision for the future and solutions for all of the city's problems are preferred."

The last line lets you know that they're being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I'm not entirely sure which of these "preferred" qualities is the most implausible. Philadelphia has a notorious problem with pay-to-play, and seething anger over real and perceived corruption in the government has been building up in the region for years. Some of that erupted in the still-rolling mayoral office wiretap scandal (which had the somewhat bizarre effect of rocketing current mayor John Street's poll numbers in the 2003 election) along with the indictments of various City Hall officials and people who do business with the city. That, along with some new ethics bills (sponsored by councilman and mayoral hopeful Michael Nutter) has everyone talking ethics for the upcoming election.

Along with being a classic NPR/political journalist issue, ethics is part of the Committee of 70's mandate -- but so is promoting governmental cooperation and economic development in the Greater Philadelphia region. I don't think it's accidental that two of the top stories on the Next Mayor site include a WHYY radio show on "The Next Mayor" project which really focuses on how local politics have turned the city and suburbs against one another, and a Daily News story about Chicago's attempts under Mayor Daley to better integrate local government with an eye towards economic success. The lesson is that Philadelphia could and should be a regional leader if corrupt and/or the shallow, self-serving politics of division (on both sides, but especially by Philadelphia against the suburbs) didn't get in the way.

In some ways, The Next Mayor resembles the vision of discussed at Snarkmarket and elsewhere: a genuine multimedia site that offers helpful and comprehensive political information with a real ethical energy behind it. In other ways, though, it's totally a child of the traditional media: it's basically a web partnership for two of the big traditional media sources in the region (with no stories from any other sources, and no user comments or discussion board), edited by a newspaperman turned head of a partisan advocacy group, albeit one with a noble mission.

Even the notion of regional cooperation to a strong degree stems from the site being a partnership of a newspaper and radio station -- the region is really just the audience, reformed and reborn. Media companies don't think in terms of political boundaries -- they think in terms of media markets. They always have to operate with both the city and suburbs in mind, and suburbanites who work, shop, and may have grown up in the city -- in other words, commuters -- are easily the most natural consumers of newspapers and radio.

Personally, I agree that regional cooperation is essential -- look at the recent SEPTA workers strike, when the local governments did virtually nothing, and Gov. Ed Rendell had to come in to get an agreement on the table -- and I've often talked about Chicago as a practical model for how a large city/metropole should be run. I guess what I'm trying to argue/understand is the ways in which the shape of the media affects not just political coverage, but an attempt at political change itself. Admittedly, there are lots of other players involved -- the board of the Committee of 70 is filled with representatives from universities and oil companies and regional and national businesses, and lots of people outside of the media. But I wonder what something like The Next Mayor would look like if it were less like NPR and more like, and what kind of political change it could indicate, precipitate, or advocate -- if it could do anything of that kind at all.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sorting and Serendipity

Since I passed my second qualifying exam last Thursday, I've been trying to organize myself better. So I've been making small changes to my living space -- say, moving my microwave from one part of the counter to the other -- but today I finally quit the easy stuff and tried to tackle all of my media: books, movies, CDs, and documents ranging from this months' bills to boxes filled with old tax information, foreign currency and love notes. Of course, I haven't made anything resembling the ghost of a hint of a dent -- but it's been an interesting day.

Some of my boxes have things I haven't looked at in years: wallet-sized photos I exchanged with my classmates in 1997, my college graduation tassels and (inexplicably) two dean's medals from the MSU College of Arts & Letters, an Irish ten-pound note featuring a portrait of James Joyce that disturbingly resembles my grandmother. I decided to keep the love note from my girlfriend (from before she became my girlfriend) and re-read one of the last love notes from an ex-girlfriend (just after she became my ex) before deciding to throw it away. Not many regrets there.

I found two old ID cards -- one, my Michigan State ID, is from July 1997. The other, an International Student ID card, is from 1999. The technology of ID cards has progressed remarkably in the last decade. My original driver's license (1995) was basically a tiny laminated photo glued to a piece of paper with a watermark on it. I once watched my cousin open one up and slide a new photo inside -- the easiest way to make a fake ID. (The ISID was made basically the same way.) My MSU ID was the first generation of computer-generated cards and (if I remember correctly) was the last year when they were printed in black-and-white. All of my student and state IDs since have been beautiful, full-color, and nigh tamper-proof.

The coup de grace, though, has been the box of computer hardware I've kept tucked away for about two and a half years. Most of it -- an old 128 kb memory strip, a modem, plus some other junk -- I threw away, but I paused when I unwrapped what turned out to be my old hard drive.

The original hard drive that shipped with my computer -- still going strong at four years old, after having made lots of modifications and swapped out most of the parts apart from the processor, motherboard, floppy drive, and case -- crashed in June 2003, at the end of my first year at Penn, taking with it most of my just-budding collection of music downloads and (more dramatically) almost all of the writing I'd done that year. It also kept me from using my computer for a couple of weeks while I tried, with utter futility, to fix the problem myself, with help from friends, and finally wasting 50 bucks to hire a North Philly company who didn't do anything but pick up the computer, verify that it failed at startup, and offer to format the hard drive for another $100. No thanks, I said. I can do that myself.

I didn't format the hard drive, though -- I just bought a new one (bigger and better), reinstalled Windows, ripped the handful of music files and docs I had backed up, and vowed to do things better this time. And I put my old hard drive away -- too sad to throw it away, but too angry that it had failed me to think about what else to do.

When I found it today, though, I nearly did throw it away. The music collection, which I'd always thought irreplaceable, I'd managed to replace, along with all of the programs, which were now in updated and re-updated versions. What stopped me -- apart from the fear of digging any deeper into the piles of boxes and papers I'd accumulated in the other room -- was the writing. Now, my first year at Penn was, at least personally, one of the worst years of my life -- someday, maybe I'll tell the entire story, but that's definitely for another post -- but it was probably my most productive year of school in my life. I was learning lots of new material and new ways of analyzing it and making new arguments, had probably the best set of teachers I'm ever going to have, and was doing very well by throwing myself completely into both the material and a certain kind of performance in the classroom: fluid, critical, knowledgable, with a kind of pedagogical intent -- I had figured out that the best way I could understand something was through trying to explain it. Which is the way I've tried to operate ever since.

I'd lost nearly all of the papers I wrote that year when my disk crashed, except for a few I'd saved to floppies, plus drafts that I would e-mail to myself so I could work on them on campus. At least one of these papers I had thought could make a good basis for a dissertation chapter -- when I finally gave up on my hard drive, I was inconsolable.

And it was in anger that I nearly threw away the drive again. I backed out of it by increments. First I agreed (with myself) that I would at least save the quick-release clips attached to the side of the hard-drive. When you buy a new drive, sometimes these come with it, and sometimes they don't -- it's always handy to have extras. (Don't ask me how this reasoning jibes with the only-what's-necessary heuristic I was using to get rid of my other old stuff.)

Then I remembered -- I had never tried using the drive after I had re-installed Windows on my new hard drive to see if I could salvage any files from it. The computer guy I'd hired had told me that he'd done it -- but he had been entirely full of shit from the beginning.

I hooked up the old hard drive to the power source and to my new disk array. I was such a novice then -- I didn't even want to open up the case -- and I was surprised at what an old hand I was at it now. Now I've installed a hard drive, extra memory, two DVD-RW drives, an Ethernet card, and extra USB/Firewire card. Computer hardware is so much easier to get your hands into then anyone would have you believe. I wish my car were like my PC.

After a few false starts, I got it -- with the new hard drive booting Windows, not only did it recognize the hard drive, it was able to complete the scandisk utility it had always gotten stalled at before (on the rare occasion it had started up at all). As it turned out, the file sectors with Windows on it had been corrupt -- which kept it from booting, or at least booting properly -- but the drive itself was fine, and virtually all of my media was in good shape.

Here were the real finds -- my old term papers, guides I'd written for myself in preparation for the Theory exam, an old mix CD given by a friend that I'd thought was lost forever. Letters I'd written, never sent, and forgotten about. Everything else was worthless, but I could copy what I needed and format the rest. Clean, closed, and done -- finally.

My mother asked me recently what I wanted for Christmas -- that isn't on your Amazon wish list, she said. Besides books, music, or movies. I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking -- besides books, music, or movies, I don't have anything else -- I don't do anything else. My memory, my actions, my thoughts, are made from boxes within boxes, lost files on forgotten disks with written arguments on books I'd read, or a song I'd heard and saved away for later. I don't want anything else, I've never wanted or needed anything else -- just to recover what I've lost among the things I wanted -- and to throw the rest away.

Friday, December 09, 2005

This Is It, Folks

That's right -- the end of the world, where we all collapse beneath the weight of our own obstinacy, stupidity, hypocrisy, and greed.

At least, that's what I thought after reading this quote:

"If you want to talk about global consciousness, I'd say there's one country that is focused on action, that is focused on dialogue, that is focused on cooperation, and that is focused on helping the developing world, and that's the United States," [State Department spokesman Adam] Ereli said.

... right after the U.S. delegation walked out of climate control talks in Montreal today.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Lord Have Mercy

Grrrggh... Can't blog... Must read constantly for qualifying exam on history of English literature... What's the relevance of The Canterbury Tales for the Victorian novel... Track the representation of "the Jew" in African-American modernism with reference to Dubois, Toomer, and Baldwin... Who are Ahab's mates and their harpooners and what is their significance... RAARRRGH!! HULK SMASH!!

To paraphrase Mr. Show w/ Bob and David: "You come here with your heads filled with soup... and when you leave, your mind will be like a steel trap... with the bloody foot of literature inside it!"

So, no posts till Friday.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Philadelphia Bee

Via Attytood, my new favorite Philadelphia blog: reports that McClatchy, the family-run newspaper group that owns (among other papers) the Sacramento and Fresno Bees, is considering purchasing Knight Ridder (owner of the much-belaguered Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News). Attytood's Will Bunch has a longer and better-informed take on this and other Inky and PDN-related news in his post, so 'nuff said by me.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fonts Ahoy!

There's a good article (print-only) in this week's New Yorker on Matthew Carter, inventor of Verdana and sixty-two other font families -- probably more than anybody. (I would have thought that the font nerds over at Snarkmarket would have already jumped on this, but I guess I read [and blogged] it first.) Here are some highlights.

One of Carter's current projects:

The Times wanted for its magazine an alphabet of the face it uses to print its name. All the paper had were the letters that spell "The New York Times."
On his expertise:
Another time, at an antique auction, [Carter] saw a poster announcing the sale of slaves, which was being offered as genuine. He noticed that some of the writing was in a typeface invented in the nineteen-fifties. He thought it was strange that someone would take so much trouble to forge a document and then be sloppy about the typeface, but people tend to think that typefaces have always existed.
Memories of childhood:
To teach him to read, his mother cut an alphabet for him from linoleum. "Gill Sans," he says, "a popular typeface of the time."
His apprenticeship during the 1950s at Enschedé en Zonen, a printing company in the Netherlands:
Since the late ninteenth century, type has been made by machine, but Enschedé made type by hand, using techniques that hadn't changed for four hundred years. Carter was apprenticed to a cutter of type called P.H. Rädisch, who was eccentric and secretive. Enschedé had bought a machine to manufacture type. Each night, Rädisch removed part of the machine and on his way home dropped it into a canal. Eventually, the machine disappeared entirely. Rädisch had for years refused to train anyone to succeed him but had lately taken on an assistant. The assistant was "willing to tolerate an amateur," Carter says. Carter sat between the two men, and though Rädisch said very little to him, the assistant was helpful. Carter was one of the last men in Europe trained to cut type by hand."
Reordering the alphabet:
[D]esigners don't regard the alphabet as a linear sequence. Instead they tend to see round letters ("O," "G," "C," "Q"), square letters ("H," "F," "L," "T"), and diagonal ones ("A," "W," "X," "Z"). The classic approach to type design is to begin with the capital "H" and "O"... [Carter] prefers to start with the lowercase "h" and "o." He proceeds carefully, because any misjudgment multiplies its effect as he continues. He does a "p" and a "d" next, because they include elements of the "h" and the "o" and are also inversions of each other. "If something looks awful with your 'p' and your 'd,'" he says, "you know something's wrong with your 'h' and 'o,' and you revise them." Next he might draw a "v," because it involves new considerations.
The quirks of the eye and the drama of design:
Perfect geometry appears to form the basis for many typefaces, [type designer Tobias] Frere-Jones says, "but in fact the eye will become confused if it sees pure geometry. The forms will seem stiff and labored." Designing type involves a kind of stagecraft -- "organized cheating," Frere-Jones calls it -- so that the eye will accept as symmetrical forms that are actually imperfect.
On avant-garde typography:
It is all but universally agreed that type is intended to convey ideas and should not aggressively draw attention to itself, except in advertisements or signs or trademarks--what is called display typography--or perhaps in fine printing. Avant-garde typographers whose intention, according to the designer Jonathan Hoefler, is "to do with type design what Joyce did with words and Stravinsky did with music" print texts that are meant to be difficult to read, to be deciphered like a code...
For the other side, on the illusion of invisibility:
That type should be serviceable and undemonstrative was stated, nearly as a manifesto, by a critic named Beatrice Warde, in 1932... In "Printing should be invisible," an address delivered to the British Typographers Guild, and later collected in "The Crystal Goblet," Warde said, "The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author's words." He might build a stained-glass window that is beautiful to look at, she says, but a failure as a window... "There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page."
Something I've always wondered -- why we call fonts "roman" or "italic":
The alphabet was organized into capital and small letters around 800. The capital letters derived from inscriptions on Roman monuments, and the smaller letters from handwriting. Initially, all printing imitated handwriting. The first book that could be easily carried around was printed in Venice in 1501. It was called a pocket book. It was printed in italic, which was thinner than the other styles of type, and was said to be an imitation of Petrarch's handwriting.
On how John Coltrane convinced Carter to stay in New York:
In the spring of 1960, the John Coltrane quartet played its first engagement. Carter was in the audience. Over several weeks, he heard them three or four times. "Sometimes they played the same songs in the second set as they played in the first," he says. "Not because they were lazy but because they wanted to surpass themselves, or find something in the music that they hadn't found earlier in the evening. They were that acute."
All in all, an excellent read. Especially if you're a great big dork.