- Prince died yesterday, at age fifty-seven, at his home, Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The nation mourns: Minnesota Public Radio has dedicated its waves exclusively to the artist; purple rain adorns next week’s New Yorker cover; San Francisco lit its City Hall with the royal hue; and MTV, which hasn’t played a music video in years, aired nothing but the late musician’s work and the movie Purple Rain yesterday. Said the New York Times of the musician, “His music was a cornucopia of ideas: triumphantly, brilliantly kaleidoscopic.”
- As it turns out, Soviet production novels—that humorless subgenre of yore—followed a pretty basic pattern: “an outsider arrives at a factory or construction site and has to figure out how to solve a morale problem or increase productivity: Ivan Alexandrovich has to supervise the building of a hydroelectric plant or Sofia Alexandrovna has to increase production at the textile mill. They are, along with Elizabethan masques and vice-presidential autobiographies, one of the most arid literary genres ever devised.”
- Any young person working in publishing today ought to know a little about the history of fonts. If you, like me, feel your knowledge is lacking, I offer you a not-so-brief history of roman fonts. “The Carolingian or Caroline minuscule joined forces with antique Roman square capitals at the very beginning of the fifteenth century—a conjunction willed by the great Florentine humanists; their forms first wrought in metal by two German immigrants at Subiaco and Rome, honed by a Frenchman, and consummated at the hands of Griffo of Bologna and Aldus the Venetian. A thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the romans returned and reconquered.”
- Today is the four-hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’s death. Before he wrote Don Quixote, Cervantes was kidnapped by pirates and imprisoned in the Algiers for five years, a life-defining moment that influenced his writing: “I would argue that Cervantes’s explicit interest in the question of madness emerges from the borderline situations he endured as a captive, from the encounter with death that transformed him into a survivor. [It] converts him into a pioneer in the exploration of the psyche three centuries before Freud.”
- You know who else passed away this week four hundred years ago? Shakespeare, that’s who. To celebrate the Bard, NPR spoke with Shakespeare scholars, dramaturges, and Victorian food experts and produced a series of delightful essays on his relation to food. Linguistic and gastronomical insights abound: As Anne Bramley writes, “When Hamlet huffs about the ‘funeral baked meats’ served at his mother’s wedding banquet, he is chastising her for her quick remarriage, implying that she was serving leftovers from his father’s recent funeral. But funeral baked meats were in fact a real food, and they weren’t as macabre as their name implied—though they were cooked in a ‘coffin.’ The same word was used for ‘a coffer to keep dead people or to keep meat in,’ explains Ken Albala, director of food studies at the University of the Pacific.”
I’d always thought that designing new packaging for a classic film was like designing a jacket for a new edition of a well-known book: both are associated, in the popular imagination, with familiar, even beloved, graphics. If the designer strays too far from the original vision, the potential for public outcry is high. But where a book offers visual freedom—our minds are free to imagine the scenes and the various characters—a movie comes with a profusion of visual material that’s not soon forgotten. There’s the original theatrical poster, and then, of course, there’s the very film itself, and all the iconic images we associate with it. For designers, translating a director’s vision is hard enough the first time. How do you do it again?
The Criterion Collection is known for its impeccable taste in classic and contemporary films, and for the artful packaging that puts these films in a much-needed new light. Late last year, I sat down with their head art director of more than a decade, Sarah Habibi, and designer/art director Eric Skillman, who were celebrating the recent publication of a book they’d produced at breakneck speed in time for Criterion’s thirtieth anniversary: Criterion Designs, an illumination of their process in imagining some of the collection’s most successful projects. Read More
- The Internet is awash in devastating, graphic personal essays—young writers are encouraged, maybe more than ever, to monetize and sensationalize their grisliest experiences. So … now what? “The Internet’s confessional impulse has been fully codified. Every site seems to have a first-person vertical … But for all the different house styles these pieces accommodate, it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience … This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
- The Joan Didion that people adore these days is the Didion of The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not the Didion of Democracy—but that novel is remarkable, too, and to read it is to enter a fecund and too often neglected phase of her career: “There’s something in Democracy that you’ll find little of in Didion’s nonfiction: It’s the book in which she does the most thinking about a formative subject in her life, the Vietnam War, yet it’s a book that rarely enters into current discussions of her work … A more useful understanding would recognize the later nonfiction as an extension and amplification of the early nonfiction’s achievements. It would also see the novels as vital continuations of the same project, workings out of problems in style and sense painted on blank canvases. Such an understanding would turn Democracy from a bookshelf ornament to a central work about Vietnam, the other historical hinge in Didion’s career.”
- Roland Barthes wrote well about TV, and professional wrestling in particular—meaning he was also, thirty-five years ahead of time, writing well about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. “The key to generating passion, Barthes notes, is to position yourself to deliver justice against evil forces by whatever means necessary … But why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act? As Barthes illustrates, that’s asking the wrong question. ‘It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.’”
- Today in fact-checking: the most error-prone movie of the year thus far is Jurassic World, which boasts an impressive nineteen continuity blunders, plot holes, and factual mistakes. “Errors in Jurassic World reportedly include a mobile phone that appears to magically fix itself … and the ability to start up an abandoned Jeep that has been parked, fully exposed to the elements, on a tropical island for twenty years … The all-time record is held by 1979’s Apocalypse Now, with a whopping 561 mistakes.”
- The typographer Adrian Frutiger, who designed the font for London’s street signs, has died at eighty-seven. “I learned to understand that beauty and readability—and up to a certain point, banality—are close bedfellows,” Frutiger said. “The best typeface is the one that impinges least on the reader’s consciousness, becoming the sole tool that communicates the meaning of the writer to the understanding of the reader.”
- Everyone says television has entered a new golden age, so it follows that books based on television have entered a new golden age, too. In other words, why write a novel when you can write a novelization? “For publishers, tie-in books have become cash cows that offer instant brand recognition and access to huge fan bases for vastly larger media … ‘Sometimes I meet writers who are like, “Why are you doing this?” but I would be betraying who I am if I said I’m never going to do this again because it’s beneath me as an artist … I combat the idea that these can’t be good novels.’ ”
- Breaking: some hooligan has made off with the bronze plaque that hangs on Mark Twain’s grave marker in Elmira, New York. Authorities have ensured that it’s not on eBay.
- Our literary critics have become less egotistical over the decades—have they also lost the touch? “Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make ‘interventions’ of world-historical importance.”
- And Vanity Fair has done something of an about-face, too, if you look at its history. “That it has become such a celebratory document of the upper class is one of Vanity Fair’s ironies,” but the early iteration of the magazine, edited by Frank Crowninshield, “sought to break something. Its initial sharpness drove at some kind of point other than the enjoyment of fine food and clothing.”
- Rediscovered credos on typography from a 1964 issue of Print magazine: “Is the typographer a prophet or a propagator of a new faith? Typography should be allowed individuality … [but] the aim of typography must not be expression, least of all self-expression, but perfect communication achieved by skill … Typography is a servant and nothing more.”
- Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman.
- Who are Joyce’s modern heirs? Rivka Galchen and Pankaj Mishra discuss.
- No longer shall they toil in obscurity: Lemony Snicket has launched the Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
- The Hardy Boys face what are undeniably their strangest mysteries yet.
- Is Eurostile Bold Extended the most popular typeface in science fiction? A look at the typography in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- “What did the horse say to Bordeaux?” Typographic humor.
- Bravery, boldness, folly: six insane acts of writing. (Some more literally so than others.)
- “I took little snippets of text and ideas from some of my favorite authors, and let the words be a springboard for an illustration. The illustrations incorporate and interact with the text and hopefully add up to something that engages the mind as much as the eye.”
- “Twilight’s libraries are profoundly disorganized.” A human librarian gives a professional critique to Ponyville’s My Little Pony librarian, Twilight Sparkle.
- Nothing you didn’t already know: books can indeed treat depression and anxiety.