I am a relentless book-buyer. The habit began in childhood, when after refusing to buy outfits from Gap Kids, my mom took me to Reading Reptile. Together, my brother and I wandered the bookshop, jaws agape, touching covers to our cheeks, catching starchy whiffs of thick paper stock, completely shocked that we were allowed to touch so many beautiful books.[i] We racked up a substantial but justifiable bill: “You will grow out of clothes,” my mother said. “But you won’t outgrow books.”
Number 13 was the first McSweeney’s book I bought.[ii] The intricate gold-embossing; the crisp smell of creamy paper; the muted complexities of a Chris Ware cartoon consumed me. In Number 13, I rediscovered a part of my childhood. Michael Beirut similarly writes: “It took me right back to the way the Sunday paper used to arrive on my childhood doorstep, and it conjured the same sense of excitement.” The issue was the complex embodiment of my twitterpated childhood, and future whispers of adulthood heart-slaughter that captured and united anyone who engaged in it.[iii]
McSweeney’s issues are quarterly evidence of an odd, nurturing community — one that understands the wonder of books not only as literary tomes but as beautiful objects that reveal more each time you look. By recruiting contributions of unwanted works to the first McSweeney’s Quarterly, the small publishing house named after a peculiar man from Dave Eggers’ childhood, has further developed its book-making family by aggregating a sub-community of McSweeney’s appreciators in tortoise-shell glasses, who ignore that print appears to be dying. Recently released, The Art of McSweeney’s, chooses to acknowledge this very sentiment: “We believe…that the attention paid to the book-as-object has a role in ensuring the survival of the words within that book’s covers,” writes Eggers, assuring the McSweeney’s cultish gaggle that the small wonder-that-could isn’t going anywhere.
The Art…is a covetable reference. At first glance, it’s no production feat,[iv] but the book is a clever, humorous conversation of how McSweeney’s came to fruition. It starts at the beginning, with Eggers’ first typed plea for submissions, gradually unraveling to tell its own irreverent fairytale as only McSweeney’s can, and that’s what makes the book special. Organized chronologically (every issue, plus projects in-between), the narration is made up of interviews and dialogues of every person involved with McSweeney’s in the form of one, effortless, enjoyable, more-ish conversation. New voices are introduced with every issue, coming and going as their names are called, bringing to life the thriving pack of book-as-object lovers.
There’s no such thing as a 20-year no-hitter; McSweeney’s isn’t all good stuff. In its effort to print and publish the wonderfully unwanted, editors have made the nerds a more exclusive, elitist group of well read hipsters, uninviting anyone else. But, it’s not necessarily a bad moment when McSweeney’s elevates a socks-and-sandals community to cool. Finally, at least, the pocket-protected writers and readers are on the same subscription list.
For a publishing company comprised of some of today’s great literary minds, it is refreshing to have an open-book that addresses the gated publishing world. Despite its coffee table presence, The Art… is not something to flick through. It reads, front-to-back like the best stories in any Quarterly Concern, enveloping you in language, story and construction; inviting you, for 265 pages plus poster, to be a part of the community.
[i] Reading Reptile, after all, was a children’s bookshop where I imagined that the books were made for me — that between Paul Mesner puppet shows and afternoon snacks, the shop would magically transform into my personal library.
[ii] I was in high school, and because Candide was a reading requirement, I chose the copy with the prettiest cover — a Chris Ware cover, commissioned by Penguin art director Paul Buckley.* At the time, I was also reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and wondering how I could conjure Eggers to help write my college application essays. The stars had aligned with the self-imposed fate of a nerdy, 17-year-old overachiever by the time I came across Number 13 in a bookshop.
[iii] Little did I know, but three years later, sweating inside a plane that was grounded for three hours, I would meet a person who worked for McSweeney’s, whom I would date and fall hopelessly in amorous infatuation with, only to have my heart shredded several weeks later. McSweeney’s would be happy to know that sparks didn’t fly because of a mutual adoration for the organization; fireworks cracked in true, hipster form — by way of music, porkpie hats, and rolled Nantucket-red trousers.
[iv] Within the book, however, there are countless references to experimental, sky’s-the-limit projects that define McSweeney’s: From the first color cover (“We had no clue how to manufacture something like this.”); to the lauded Number 13, edited by Chris Ware (I knew that the book would reach mailboxes of a thoughtful, literate readership and so it was my chance to stealthily make a good case for thoughtful, literate comics.”); to the design of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends (“I came up with about 283 lame-ass design ideas. I showed them to Dave…He ripped a piece of paper out of a notebook…and took out his pen…I didn’t really understand it to be honest. But you would be crazy not to trust Dave’s design sense.”), The Art… maintains a clear voice because of the sheer amount and diversity of voices that comprise its community. The heavy-hitters are all present, and so are the interns…and the printers in Iceland.
* In my junior year of college, I e-mailed Paul Buckley to ask him about the Penguin graphic novelist series, and he wrote beautifully in his e-mail back to me about community: “I undertook the graphic novelist series with designer Helen Yentus. My publisher and editors knew which books they wanted to do and we'd just sit on the floor of my office surrounded by massive amounts of comics and pair-up great literature with great writers. It was a hell of a lot of fun.”
“If you are on the stove working out a recipe and its not quite right, you know. Your sense of taste, your sense of smell tells you so. In design, your eyes, your gut tells you the same thing. Like anything its about balance and harmony, and if you lack that you'll never be a good chef or a good designer. I also know its done because my editor stops torturing me, and the author says "fine, if it must look like this, I give up - but please know I'm not thrilled".