Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

19 OCTOBER, 2012

Vintage Indian Matchbook Labels

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A vibrant tale of cultural history and brand power.

Matchbook (public library), from the wonderful Tara Books, collects more than 500 striking Indian matchbox labels gathered by Shahid Datawala over the course of several decades, at once reminiscent of vintage Soviet propaganda in their visual language and of mid-century American travel posters in their vibrant colors, and yet entirely singular and culturally distinctive in overall sensibility. The designs, which advertise everything from guns to violins and inhabit the curious space between culture and commerce, do more than brand the product — with their animated, loud identity, they demand attention as standalone objects of fixation, almost fetishistic in their seductive boldness. At the same time, the avalanche of imitation that the most popular designs sparked — often comic in its complete disregard for and oblivion to modern intellectual property norms — bespeaks a key characteristic of any powerful brand: the hunger for imitation.

The history of the Indian match industry has a fascinating history itself — from its roots in Swedish capital, to the boom of local production in the 1920s that propelled self-made Indian entrepreneurs from the lower castes into newfound independence, to its Golden Age following the Indian liberation from British rule. At once a tool of state economic planning, actively incentivizing local jobs, and a mecca of child labor employing kids as young as six, the story of the matchbox industry parallels the evolution of Indian society in the twentieth century. V. Geetha writes in a short essay contextualizing the images:

More generally, in the Indian context, labels came to circulate as tokens of shared culture and connoted commercial goodwill. … Ultimately, the charm of match labels, even for those that commission them, must be linked to visual pleasure, renewed on an everyday basis. And through these images, the humble matchstick resonates — in a convoluted, barely recognized fashion — with mythic and historical memory, valorized icons and images, an fantasies of consumption.

Matchbook is itself shaped like a matchbox and comes in a beautiful matt-laminated slipcase.

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

Displays of Affection: Iconic French Cartoonist Sempé Explores Relationship Clichés

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Charming illustrated voyeurism into the lives of people falling in and out of love.

“I prefer drawing to talking,” Le Corbusier famously proclaimed. “Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” The best of drawing can reveal deep and tender truths with just a few simple, expressive lines. That’s what Jean-Jacques Sempé, France’s most celebrated cartoonist, does in Displays of Affection (public library) — a wonderful “book of people falling in (and out) of love,” originally published in 1981. Among other delights of the heart, the charming narrative explores two of my favorite things: bikes and love.

Edward Koren writes in the introduction:

The success of a social satirist can be measured by how much enthusiasm for his work the subjects (and objects) of his satire are willing to show. The great popularity in France enjoyed by Sempé attests to the fond way the French have come to view themselves through his eyes and ears, and to rely on his extraordinary sensibility to get a view of themselves. … The people in Sempé’s world are more the denizens of a global petite bourgeoisie, equally identifiable on both hemispheres and on all the inhabited continents. They live in the humdrum shadow of greatness that for them is chronically out of reach. Inspiration, passion, joy, immortality are some of the ideals never achieved by Sempé’s people, who must content themselves with mundane issues of sustenance, security, uncertainty, anxiety, anger, timidity, and self-importance, to name but a few. All this (and many more subtle and sensitive ingredients) is made laughable and sad by Sempé, who mixes his people into situations that are clichés of modern life.

The enchantment of it, of course, is that even in the most centered and confident of us lives a Sempé character who, if let loose, can steer the wheel — or pedal the bicycle, as it were — in disheartening directions. Koren continues:

Displays of Affection has Sempé fixing his voyeuristic eye and eavesdropping ear on that most clichéd of all subjects — relationships. The great ideal of the grand and lasting passion smiles down on the bumbling solitude of his lovers and mates, who fight, scold, daydream, protect themselves with envelopes of self-importance, always ending up in the same routinized lives they started with. And what is amazing to those of us enmeshed in the deadly seriousness of these matters is how Sempé, with Olympian dispassion, makes it all familiar, personal, real, and truly funny.

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

Action Philosophers: Two Millennia of Philosophy in Comic Form

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John Stuart Mill meets Peanuts, or how to handle mummies like Carl Jung.

Graphic nonfiction has established itself as a storytelling medium for educational entertainment and entertaining education, from the history of the atomic bomb to the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson to the Zen of Steve Jobs. Action Philosophers! (public library), a mega-tome collecting all nine volumes of the celebrated series by graphic artist Ryan Dunlavey and writer Fred Van Lente, takes you on an ideological journey from the pre-Socratics to Jacques Derrida, by way of Rene Descartes, John Stuart Mill, and Carl Jung, giving those literary action figures a run for the money.

Open Culture

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