Brain Pickings

How a Book is Made: AD 400 vs. 1947 vs. 1961 vs. 2011

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A brief history of the bound page and our evolving collective narrative about its craftsmanship.

I love books, their past and their future. Yet, while ubiquitous and commodified, books and how they come to be remains an enigma for most of us. No longer. From Discovery comes this 5-minute microdocumentary on how books are made:

Compare this to how illuminated manuscripts were made, painstakingly written and decorated by hand and coveted as some of the most precious objects produced in the Middle Ages:

Fast-forward to 1947 with a short film on making books:

…and then this 1961 documentary on bookbinding:

Americans at work, in an art that is the preservation of all arts: The making of books. These men are masters of their tools, from the most primitive instruments to the latest equipments of the machine age. With other craftsmen, these are the people who make the pen mightier than the sword.”

While James Gleick might be right that we’ve come to fetishize books, it’s hard to ignore the palpable change in our collective narrative on books and the value we place in their making, from the romanticized work of craftsmanship to the roboticized industrial process narrated by a lady with an appropriately robotic voice.

For a richer celebration of the vanishing craft of traditional bookbinding, you won’t go wrong with Lark’s 500 Handmade Books: Inspiring Interpretations of a Timeless Form.

UPDATE 11/2011: Books: A Living History is a fantastic new book from the J. Paul Getty Museum, exploring the story of how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented. Highly recommended.

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Samuel Beckett’s Only Cinematic Project: A Silent Film from 1965

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What a cinema history anachronism has to do with Chaplin’s replacement and the psychology of voyeurism.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the great Irish avant-garde playwright who gave us Waiting for Godot, turned himself into a screenwriter once during his literary career. In 1963, Grove Press commissioned Beckett to write a screenplay for a film — called quite simply Film — and Beckett knocked out the first draft in four days. Another draft soon followed, and it went to the director Alan Schneider, who later recalled:

The script appeared in the spring of 1963 as a fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable six-page outline. Along with pages of addenda in Sam’s inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams…

[Then came] almost a year of preparation. Reading and rereading the “script,” which, of course, had no dialogue (with the exception of that one whispered “sssh!”); asking Sam a thousand questions, largely by mail and eventually in person at his Montparnasse apartment; trying to visualize graphically and specifically the varied demands of those six tantalizing pages. Gradually, the mysteries and enigmas, common denominators of all new Beckett works, came into focus with fascinatingly simple clarity…”

When it came time to line up the cast, Beckett pushed for Charlie Chaplin, but the actor declined. So Beckett and Schneider turned to an aging Buster Keaton, another Hollywood icon from the silent and sound eras, making him an apt pick for a modern silent film. (Several of Keaton’s early films, along with many Chaplin classics, appear in Open Culture’s list of free movies online.) Scholars and critics have since had a field day trying to interpret the 17-minute film eventually completed in 1965. But when The New Yorker asked Beckett to explain the film in a way that “the man in the street” would understand, the writer offered this:

It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver — two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.”

If you’ve never seen footage of Beckett, you can catch the publicity-shy playwright speaking in the American documentary Waiting for Beckett.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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The Exposed City: A Brief History of Mapping the Urban Invisibles

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From Ptolemy to MIT, or what Edward Tufte has to do with Google Earth and the future of understanding cities.

Cities, maps and data visualization are frequent obsessions around here, and the intersection of the three hits a sweet spot of the finest kind. But how did urbanism, cartography and information visualization first come together, and where are they going as bedfellows? That’s exactly what Nadia Amoroso explores in The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles — an ambitious study of the invisible elements of the city, from demographics to traffic patterns to crime rate to environment, through “map-landscapes.” With a foreword by iconic information architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, the book traces the work of pioneers across cartography, information design, urban planning and other disciplines that have historically shaped our understanding of place and spatial relations, alongside bleeding-edge projects from contemporary innovators across data visualization, open-source mapping and other facets of technology-empowered urbanism.

It’s Man’s Ability to Perceive, it’s the MAP. It’s also the map through time with the ease of quick time and computer graphics and morphing, changing one pattern with another. Time telling a story through a day, a week or a year. Time showing change, it’s the transparency of information combined with other information creating a third piece of information.” ~ Richard Saul Wurman

(Sound familiar?)

From the ancient maps of Ptolemy, to the seminal work of legends like information design pioneer Edward Tufte, cognitive mapping trailblazer Kevin Lynch and father-of-pictograms Otto Neurath (remember him?), to the latest insights from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab and Google Earth co-founder Mark Aubin, Ambroso covers an incredible spectrum of chronology, subject matter and techniques, appropriate for the interconnected, dimensional complexity of cities as living organisms.

One particularly interesting pioneer examined is artist and architect Hugh Ferriss (1889-1962) and his depiction of New York City zoning laws, touching on the potential of drawings to explore and reveal the “invisible” dimensions of cities — something we’ve previously considered in the Invisible Cities transmedia mapping project, which uses social networking data in 2011 to do what Ferriss did with paint, paper and imagination in 1916.

Not only did his drawings become expressive vistas into the future of Manhattan’s architectural and urban design conditions, as legacies of one of the most talented artists of the period, Ferriss’s depictions also synthesize the positivist and progressive spirit of their era. These drawings foreshadowed a city which, due to its threatening qualities, was destined to remain as only pictorial.” ~ Nadia Ambroso

What made Ferriss’s drawings so successful, Amoroso notes, is that they were able to garner the attention of a wide and cross-disciplinary audience — artists, architects, urban planners, developers and city officials alike — which raises an interesting question about the nature of contemporary urban innovation and the need for cross-disciplinary engagement.

This month, Amoroso launched DataAppeal, a web-based visualization tool for creating 3D and 4D data maps and animations, based on concepts from The Exposed City.

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