Notes about books

July 21, 2017 permalink

Storefront Signs

I recently finished Jan Tschichold’s Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering (1952), an incredible gallery of historical typographic examples alongside acerbic and insightful commentary by Tschichold, and this passage about storefront signs has popped into my head whenever driving by any given strip mall:

In selecting a letter for a given task, beauty is not the only factor. The letter must also be appropriate to its purpose and surroundings. Most important, a distinction must be made between lettering that is to serve for a long period of time and lettering which is to serve only briefly. Frequently, we see lettering in architecture which, due to its flighty and cursive character, is suitable only for temporary and cheap signs. Many store front inscriptions, often executed in metal or neon lights, belong to the category of imitation brush lettering which is alien to their purpose. These are not only generally hard to read, but also often lack the spontaneous, fresh form which only a master can give them after long practice. They are lame, warped, and miserable. That which one is unprepared to do but insists on doing becomes trashy. And this trash despoils our cities today at every turn. Such pap-like brush lettering on our store fronts is out of place and poorly done. Store front lettering is an architecture, since it is a part of the building. It is destined for a long duration, often for decades, and should, therefore, always be correct, noble and beautiful. It is a waste of money to cast such pseudo brush lettering in expensive metal; it must be replaced in a few years as it becomes obsolete and visually offensive to everybody.

This kind of lettering is either the result of the client’s “design” or conceived by incompetents who should choose another profession.


Store and building signs are necessary, but they need not result in the evil they have become.

December 24, 2012 permalink

Dave Brubeck on Guaraldi Peanuts Music

There is a mixture of sadness and joy in the Peanuts characters. Their all-too-human disappointments and minor triumphs are reflected in Guaraldi’s music. It is a child’s reality.

September 5, 2012 permalink

Eff the Ineffable

Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

From Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I’m reading again for the first time since the eighth grade. It’s weird reading it now, knowing that it was originally written as part of Dr. Who series!

February 22, 2012 permalink

This May Be the Most Important Proposition

This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: “At the time, no one knew what was coming.”

From the first page of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (translated by Jay Rubin). His earlier books that I’ve read have been wonderful dream factories, but I’ve seen this one scoring some negative reviews. I don’t know what’s coming over the next 925 pages, but I have hope that it’ll be good.

December 12, 2011 permalink

Queequegs Tattoos

This tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.

The description of Queequeg’s tattoos quoted on the blog The Loom, the author of which has a new book out about science-inspired tattoos. It hadn’t occurred to me when reading Moby-Dick, but European sailors had only been decorating themselves with tattoos for some 80 years by the time the book came out — the first example of the word used in English was recorded in Captain Cook’s naturalist’s journals in 1769. 

(Here’s the original passage from Moby-Dick)

October 5, 2011 permalink

The cannibal curse of corporate prose

From the NY Times review of the updated 2011 “digital” edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People:

The following sentence, which appears on Page 80, is so inept that it may actually be an ancient curse and to read it more than three times aloud is to summon the cannibal undead: “Today’s biggest enemy of lasting influence is the sector of both personal and corporate musing that concerns itself with the art of creating impressions without consulting the science of need ascertainment.”

I don’t think they like the book’s modernized language.

July 16, 2011 permalink

The Phantom Tollbooth

I’ve been re-reading Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, one of my favorite books from when I was a kid, and it still holds up. I remember really enjoying it for its wit and wordplay (even if a lot of it whizzed over my head), but the point of the story, in which Milo learns about Wisdom (including false understandings of such) and the dangers lurking in the Mountains of Ignorance, resonates much more strongly as an adult.

“Because, my young friends,” he muttered sourly, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.” He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.

“Then you must―” gasped Milo.

“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.

“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin―if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”

And with that, I’d better get off Tumblr!

January 16, 2011 permalink

Tom Lehrer Ronald Searle

Awesome thing that I didn’t realize I had on my bookshelf: the Tom Lehrer sheet music songbook I’ve had since I was a kid was illustrated by cartoonist Ronald Searle. I must have been unfamiliar with Searle the last time I looked through this book — his scratchy style complements Lehrer’s acerbic wit nicely.

The whole book, “Too Many Songs By Tom Lehrer with not enough drawings by Ronald Searle”, is available for perusal on Scribd, in case you’re the sort that enjoys songs about masochism, the periodic table, bull fighting, nuclear annihilation, and Ivy League snobbery…

December 5, 2010 permalink

The Metrics of Rap

Language Log drops the science on the metrics of rap and hiphop, as part of a larger article on Yale University’s recently-published, transcription-error-prone The Anthology of Rap. The above image illustrates the meter of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s SuperRappin’.

As always in such cases, there’s an interesting question whether this should be thought of as a superficial deviation from an underlyingly square rhythm, or rather as a different draw from a set of available polyrhythmic patterns. For some more discussion, see e.g. “Rock syncopation: Stress shifts or polyrhythms?”, 11/26/2007. Note in any case that the mixture of four-beat and three-beat (lyric) lines evokes the traditional English ballad meter, whatever we’re to make of the variations in alignment.

November 22, 2010 permalink

Linguni a La Stigmata

From a 1992 New York Times review of one of my favorite books from when I was in school, Penn & Teller’s How to Play With Your Food:

A copious plate of pasta arrived, with no sauce. Teller suddenly stabbed his palms with a fork and rummaged through the strands of linguine. When a bright red river surged from beneath the plain pasta, Teller stood up, dripping red palms outstretched. Voila! The thrillingly gruesome “Linguine a la Stigmata.” Waiters smiled, diners at nearby tables didn’t notice a thing, and the linguine was served to one and all. …

“Violence is what gives you real excitement,” [Penn] continued. “It’s what gives us the rage to live. Without violence, you don’t really have art. You have to have your Shakespeare, your Greek tragedies. Teller and I are both very pro-violence in the arts, but only in the arts. No one wants to go on a roller coaster that’s slow and flat.”

But does that include sticking a fork into your eye? Absolutely. “Nothing is more life affirming than doing this stuff and not being hurt,” Teller said. “It’s cool to be startled. You laugh, and that’s a social activity. There are repartees, and there is ramming a fork into your eye.”

September 16, 2010 permalink

Comics in the Courtroom

From the New York Times, a notice on an exhibition entitled “The Courtroom and Comics” at the Yale Law Library:

The medium serves as a guide to what was going on in society at the time, he said: “Comics are very much a reflection of pop culture.” The law has long been a part of that, whether it’s Perry Mason grilling a witness or Denny Crane blustering.

In the exhibition, many of the images have the power to delight, especially for those who collected comics in their youth. If your day job happens to be anything like mine — I’m the national legal correspondent for this newspaper — you will certainly notice that the comic book creators’ knowledge of law had a few gaps. For starters, the little girl in that Superman cover would have been seated in the witness chair, if in fact taking sworn testimony from a minor in open court was allowed in the Metropolis jurisdiction, and Superman would have been elsewhere in the courtroom. But you probably won’t mind that the creators sacrificed a bit of reality for drama, which is also why, you know, the main character can fly.

Mike Widener, the rare book librarian mentioned in the article, formerly oversaw the Law in Popular Culture collection at our own Tarlton Law Library here in Austin, which houses a great array of movies and books with lawyerly angles.

(Via the NY Times)

May 6, 2010 permalink


And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

On daydreaming as a means to get past the terror of the blank canvas. From Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

April 25, 2010 permalink


At no point has it even occurred to me, until right now, that I’m in fact typing e-words or e-sentences. I’ve not thought about adding an e-carriage return to separate this e-paragraph from the next e-paragraph.

From Brett McLaughlin’s post on O'Reilly Radar asking why publishers and vendors are still using the term e-books when it’s simply literary content that’s appearing on a different platform. You could also argue that the term book itself is beginning to get slippery. In any case, “ebooks” has been sounding dated for a while now, so I’ll give him that.

April 18, 2010 permalink

Softening the edges

The first such Disney film I ever saw was Snow White, which added considerably to my experience of wonderful fear and terror, even though its heroine was a doll. This, I have been told, was because it was made by German refugees who had a sense of the darkness of the old stories. The film Bambi diminished the sense of real forests and creatures I had found in the book. The unbearable thing was the filming of the Jungle Books. Disney cartoons use the proportions of human baby faces – those wide eyes, those chubby cheeks we respond to automatically. The black hunting panther, the terrible strong snake, the wolf pack and its howl, the cringing tiger became dolls and toys like Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, and some crucial imaginative space was irretrievably lost.

From AS Byatt’s essay in the Guardian about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-glass, which offers some great insight into the difference between Lewis Carroll’s imagined spaces and narrative and those of other popular (later, 20th Century) fantasy stories for children.

November 27, 2009 permalink

But Gladwell Frequently Holds Forth About

But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

October 19, 2009 permalink

The Pundit’s Dilemma

There’s been a bit of a blogstorm over the impending release of the sequel to Freakonomics, the obviously-titled SuperFreakonomics. The authors are being taken to task for allegedly questionable science and statistics work, accused of oversimplifying or distorting their results for the sake of contrariness. There’s good discussion and links on Language Log’s post on the controversy:

Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It’s interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh.  But it’s also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd’s column, and it’s interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics.  In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.

We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.

In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme.  As a result, in an iterated version of the game, it’s generally better to play it fairly straight.  Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible.

July 7, 2009 permalink

Hi-Res Scans of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo in Pandemonium” Comics

Some kind guy named Thom Buchanan has created a blog where he’s posting high-res scans of the daily and Sunday strips of Walt Kelly’s Pogo from the 1966 “Pogo in Pandemonia” storyline (one of the lesser-known and stranger bits from the comic, it’s set in a Lost World type locale instead of the usual Okefenokee swamp). Excellent. Now where’s that Fantagraphics set?