The Editors | Essays

Late Summer Reading: August 2004

Summer vacations are always a great time to catch up with reading, so we've put together a list of some of our favourite books — recent and not so recent — by Asimov, Auster, Ballard, Berliner, Brooks, Caine, Coetzee, Colwin, Coupland, Diamond, Dreyfuss, Dyer, Frank, Galison, Gibson, Hochuli, Hopkins, Houellebecq, Johns, Jullien, Krichevski, Norman, Oates, Orwell, Pessoa, Peyré, Pollan, Powers, Schwartz, Sebald, Sedaris, Slater, Sterling, Stilgoe, Truitt, Vonnegut, Warshow, and Weschler. We hope you enjoy them.

Isaac Asimov

I, Robot

Although my son Andrew claims the Will Smith movie is one of the best movies he's ever seen, period, I'm sticking with the playful original. Asimov views robots as rule-governed devices, and works out the implications as methodically as any good designer would. [MB]

Paul Auster
City of Glass: Adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
Out-of-print for a number of years, this classic "graphic novel" is available again. Paul Auster's postmodern detective story, City of Glass, is breathtakingly austere; it's translation here into a visual story is not so austere, but equally breathtaking. [WD]

J. G. Ballard
Millennium People
Violence is in the air and Ballard, still one of our most trenchant, farsighted and provocative social critics, speculates in his latest novel about what might happen if the pampered middle classes finally decide they have had enough and turn to armed insurrection. [RP]

David Brooks
On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense
In Bobos in Paradise, Brooks proved himself to be a sharp observer of modern consumer culture. And refreshingly (and irritatingly), unlike many who would claim that turf, he comes from the right side of the political spectrum. His new book accepts Americans as they are, in all their fast-food-consuming, SUV-driving glory, and tries to figure out why that's more than okay. [MB]

Leslie Caine
Death by Inferior Design: A Domestic Bliss Mystery
Having brazenly recommended a book on Chinese aesthetics, I was looking for something more lighthearted. August Derleth's classic Death by Design seems to be out-of-print. However, this title caught my attention. "Two designers. Two spaces. One killer." I ordered my copy today. [WD]

J.M. Coetzee
Like Nadine Gordimer, Coetzee is a South African novelist whose commentary on the human condition is, to me at least, at once hauntingly familiar and oddly exotic. [JH]

Laurie Colwin
A Big Storm Knocked It Over
The last novel by this writer, who died in 1992. Colwin writes about the emotional intricacies of families with grace and insight. [JH]

Douglas Coupland
Hey Nostradamus!
Coupland ought to be the designer's writer par excellence. He's worked as an industrial designer and he captures the texture of consumer reality with a deft and accurate touch few novelists can equal. This is one of several recent responses to the Columbine high school massacre and it's faultlessly judged. [RP]

John Diamond
C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too...
Diamond was married to the celebrity journalist and chef, Nigella Lawson, when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in March of 1997. He published a weekly column in the Times of London until his death, at 47, four years later. Honest and self-deprecating, he compared his operation to remove the tumor to a "surgical mugging", and likened his subsequent truncated voice to "Charles Laughton in an underwater version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." [JH]

Henry Dreyfuss
Designing for People
If you insist on relaxing with a little professional reading, then Dreyfuss' book, recently reissued, is a key text of mid-20th century industrial design. When he updated it in 1967, he realised that predictions made just a decade earlier had been too tentative: things were moving so fast. Many of his insights about designing haven't dated at all. [RP]

Geoff Dyer
Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It
Don't mistake this for a guide to doing or even not doing yoga. Dyer leads an enviable, almost old-fashioned writer's life, constantly on the move between exotic locations. This funny, touching, perceptive memoir cum travelogue closes memorably at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. [RP]

Thomas Frank
What's the Matter with Kansas?
Frank is one of our best media critics, having written not just The Conquest of Cool (on how the advertising industry co-opted the ideals of the 60s) but the most (and perhaps only) interesting review that Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist ever got. In his new book, he tries to figure out why Americans with the least to gain under from Republicans tend to love them the most. [MB]

Peter Galison
Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time
Peter Galison proves that history of science need not be boring. How the world synchronized time in the late nineteenth century is a great tale, full of intrigue, politics and ego. [WD]

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
The Difference Engine
In this what-if collaboration by two great science fiction writers, the supercomputing revolution comes 100 years early, fueled by steam and festooned with more Victorian gadgetry that you can imagine. [MB]

Jost Hochuli
Printed Matter, Mainly Books
In book design, discipline is everything. This is seen in Derek Birdsall's Notes on Book Design, where everything is proscribed, from gatefolds to folios to how to manage deadlines. I prefer Jost Hochuli's more complicated approach to "system," where there is more richness and surprise. Printed Matter, Mainly Books is beautiful book, and a superb addition to the more academic, Designing Books: Practice and Theory, published by Robin Kinross in 1996. [WD]

David Hopkins
Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction
I'll read anything on this subject and this useful new book in OUP's superb series of short introductions does a great job of covering the basics, while bringing the discussion up to date with sections on identity, politics and the two movements' continuing influence and relevance. [RP]

Michel Houellebecq
Probably not the place to start with the notoriously awkward and controversial French novelist, author of Atomised, but if you are already hooked on his acerbic vision of contemporary hedonism, this holiday visit to the strange, volcanic island of Lanzarote, illustrated by his own photographs, is another bracing read. [RP]

Jasper Johns
Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews
Johns is a more reserved observer of his own life and work, but no less lyrical: his style is less expressive, more terse — his criticism more targeted and formal than Truitt's, but equally readable. [JH]

Francois Jullien
In Praise of Blandness : Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics
"I spent my summer reading about Chinese aesthetics" is not something I ever imagined writing. Jullien's book, however, is richly textured, beautifully written, and full of implications about design. [WD]

Vladimir Krichevski
The Book Cover: The Graphic Face of the Revolutionary Onslaught Epoch 1917-1937
Long available only from Mr. Panaev on eBay, this book is now offered by Nijhof & Lee in Amsterdam as well. Collectors of Russian graphics believe this to be the first new source of visual material in years. It's a bizarre case of a privately published book that makes waves by selling a few copies on eBay. [WD]

Leo Marx
The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastorial Ideal in America
Written in 1964, this work of literary investigation explored the roots of technology in American literature. Forty years later, in an era in which technology's influence is nothing short of pervasive, Marx's work is indeed visionary. [WD]

Donald Norman
Things That Make Us Smart
Easy reading on a complex topic. Norman is a no-nonsense kind of thinker who writes in a human-centered way (read "plain English") about human-centered design. And besides: who doesn't want to be smart? [JH]

Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Berliner, editors
Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction
Because I am a daughter of a mother and the mother of a daughter. Enough said. [JH]

George Orwell
Down and Out in Paris and London
This is a classic account of poverty — starving in Paris and living on the streets of London — by an undisputed master of English prose. A valuable reminder that these were once routine experiences for many, even in the wealthier nations. [RP]

Fernando Pessoa
The Book of Disquiet
I started reading this on holiday a couple of summers ago and quickly discovered that it requires your undivided attention. The brilliant Portuguese poet's "factless autobiography" of an assistant book-keeper, told in a series of numbered fragments, is one of the great masterpieces of world literature: highly demanding but hugely rewarding — like few books you'll ever have read. [RP]

Yves Peyré and H. George Fletcher
Art Deco Bookbindings: The Work of Pierre LeGrain and Rose Adler
A surprise from Princeton Architectural Press, this is a wonderful collection of rare book bindings from 1917 to 1931. Among the many recent books on book design, this one captures the explosiveness of Art Deco binding. [WD]

The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture
A big (eight kilo!) book to end all big books, this exhaustive survey of 1,052 buildings by 656 architects in 75 countries has been beautifully designed by Hamish Muir, comes with its own carrying case, and, should you choose to read it at the beach, can be used as a floatation device. [MB]

Michael Pollan
Second Nature
Pollan is a journalist who also happens to be a demon gardener. If I can't be in my garden, I find that reading his essays is the next best thing. [JH]

Richard Powers
Richard Powers is a brilliant novelist; Gain is sometimes dismissed as one of his lesser works. But it's a favorite of mine. It combines two stories: a fully-realized, entirely imaginary business history of a multinational conglomerate, and the slow realization of a woman that she is dying as a result of one of that company's products. In between are viciously accurate parodies of corporate image ads that I find more depressingly convincing than the real things. [MB]

Barry Schwartz
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
The title says it all. The author, a Swarthmore College professor, argues that abundance is ruining our lives. Even if you're left unconvinced, if you're involved in "enhancing differentiation" (as my clients say in their Powerpoint presentations), this is a worthwhile provocation. [MB]

W. G. Sebald
On the Natural History of Destruction
In the years after the Second World War, the subject of the allied bombing of Germany was rarely discussed by those who had endured it. Sebald's superb essay provides a searing account of the physical destruction of cities such as Hamburg and Dresden and the psychic damage of those who survived. [RP]

David Sedaris
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Many of these stories were performed live at Carnegie Hall in New York last year, a performance which is now available on CD. Just as enjoyable in print form, Sedaris is to reading what Seinfeld is to television — raising the mundane to the joyously goofy. [JH]

Lauren Slater
Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir
Michael Bierut recommends Slater's latest book, but her earlier books are, to me, equally if not more intoxicating. She's written about Prozac and about parenthood, but in Lying she plays with narrative in an entirely new way: treading the line between fiction and non-fiction, Slater's observations are at once unsettling and unforgettable. [JH]

Lauren Slater
Opening Skinner's Box
This very readable — and controversial — book is a poetic, personal look at ten landmark psychological experiments from the last 100 years. As a designer, I found many (perhaps unintended) lessons on how people come to understand, and cope with, information, emotions, and the world around them. [MB]

John Stilgoe
Shallow Water Dictionary
I recommended this book to Design Observer readers last December. It's like the seasons: a book with colors and nuances that change with every reading. [WD]

Anne Truitt
Turn: The Journal of An Artist
Writer, sculptor, mother and memoirist, Truitt has published several books (Prospect, Daybook) that explore how she makes work, and how her work fits into and breaks out of the other roles with which she so passionately identifies. [JH]

Kurt Vonnegut
Player Piano
As a not-so-secret admirer of 1950s American corporate culture, I find Kurt Vonnegut's first book (a dystopian satire drawn from his experiences in the PR department at General Electric in Schenectady, New York) a useful corrective. [MB]

Robert Warshow
The Immediate Experience
Warshow, who died in 1955 at the age of 37, was one of the first to write seriously about popular culture, from comic books to gangster films. He wanted to evoke the immediacy of areas of cultural experience that were often ignored by the educated. Long out of print, these ground-breaking essays were reissued in 2001. [RP]

Lawrence Weschler
Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies
Lawrence Weschler is not only the great champion of "the entended, writerly, not-necessarily-immediately-topical piece of non-fiction reportage," he is one of its greatest practioners. Whether writing about the quality of light in Los Angeles, the ravages of the war in Bosnia, or the legendary comic artist Art Spiegelman, Weschler is always on the edge: his writing is always provocative and compellling, offering new and unusual insights that are his and his alone. [WD]


Arnold Band
Had Gadya: El Lissitzky's Edition of 1919

Morris Berman
The Twilight of American Culture

Nicholas Blechman
Empire: Nozone IX

James Elkins
What Happened to Art Criticism?

Emigre No. 66
Nudging Graphic Design

Naomi Games
Abram Games Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means

John Gray
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Katharine Harmon
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination

Mark Lombardi
Global Networks

George Monbiot
Manifesto for a New World Order

Simon Morley
Writing on the Wall: Word and image in Modern Art

Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo
Paul Rand: Modernist Design

Alissa Quart
Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers

Roger Remington
American Modernism: Graphic Design 1920-1960

Susan Sontag
Regarding the Pain of Others

Art Spieglman
In the Shadow of No Towers

Elka Spoerri
The Art of Adolf Wölfli

Steve Tomasula + Stephen Farrell
Vas: An Opera In Flatland

Lynne Truss
Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Comments [6]

Thanks for the great listing. I didn't know about the Ballard book above, but will check it out. I need some late summer reading, and it's telling to see who suggests what book. I've gained insight into your flavors of choice.
Jason T

I received an email from Gunner Swanson informing me he is on Holiday for a couple of weeks.

He's somewhere between the Arctic Circle, Greenland Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

All I know there's an Airline Branded with its name.

He'll return the second week of September and will comment on the Olympic Editorial. Discussing Otl Aicher.

Many thanks for the amazing reading list.


I thought to be a GREAT designer you had to be a workaholic, and thus get no vacations. So is this a a popular urban myth?

My late Summer reading will be "Profile Pentagram Design" and "How to Be Rich" by Donald Trump. What's odd is that while the Donald has pretty poor visual taste he does seem to understand the value of building a brand and doing what you love for a living.

I also just spotted Milton Glaser on NY1 talking about a Bush protest project that he seems to be working on with one of the band members of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Michael Pinto

nice list, ive been wanting to read a houellebecq novel for a while. im not sure that i quite agree with the adaptation of the paul auster story tho. comic book adaptations have the same problems as movie adaptations of novels in many ways -- basically, one artists vision of the novel clashes with the thousands of visions of those who already know the story in literary form. this adaptation is a bit cutesy, and in my opinion, i recommend that the story itself, found in paul auster's new york trilogy, be read.

also, david mazzuchelli's art has changed quite a bit since his days in the eighties as a mainstream superhero comic book artist, and the tone is definitely a bit more personal. but i still love the work he did with frank miller on batman: year 1 and daredevil: born again, two more recommendations id like to add to this list.
manuel miranda

That listing of books is great. In fact I was planning to buy some books and didn't know which ones to go for. This listing would sure come in handy.
Mark P

Oh, much better now.
Thanks for fixing it. :-)

Jobs | June 16