Thursday, May 20, 2010

Musings on (What's Been) Lost

Maybe that subject will drive some traffic this way!

A few weeks ago, when I was starting to think about my week of blogging, I had very definite plans for today. I had hoped to live-blog this conference, the first hosted by C19, a new society for nineteenth-century Americanist scholars. Some people whose work I really admire will be speaking today, including Patricia Crain (author of The Story of A, which I read as an undergraduate), Samuel Otter (whose new book, Philadelphia Stories, I’ll be reviewing for July), and Brenda Wineapple (who wrote White Heat, a very good book about Emily Dickinson, and a biography of Hawthorne that I hear is also a fine read). Not to mention a host of other scholars and writers over the course of the weekend—again including, but not limited to, Thomas Augst, John Bryant, John Stauffer, Wyn Kelley, Wai Chee Dimock, Meredith McGill, Hester Blum, Laura Wexler, and Bryan Waterman (that’s in chronological order). Suffice it to say that it sounds like a very fun conference, and I’d love to be there.

Unfortunately, because I’m not from the East Coast, I didn’t realize that Penn State—which is hosting the conference—isn’t in Philadelphia. I had planned to make at least a day trip, but on Tuesday night I found out that the school is actually in central Pennsylvania, a five-hour drive from New York. So this post will not in fact be a live-blogged literary conference, but that is a theme I plan to return to in the future. Be on the lookout in coming months for a post about another, probably less exciting conference.

Luckily, I still have something to write about on what I’m deciding to call Academic Thursdays. (All right, it will probably just be this one Academic Thursday.) This morning on the train I read Lawrence Biemiller’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Should Your New Buildings Look Old?” In it, he discusses the phenomenon of univerities commissioning buildings in the predominant campus style. Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t, as at the University of Virginia: “a 366,000-square-foot basketball arena with a 1,500-space parking garage has no business whatsoever pretending to look like Monticello.”

I responded to the article because I, while not trained in architecture, love the unique place-ness of university campuses. I’m always alert to their differences when I visit. And some of those differences aren’t architectural, as Biemiller notes: “What is it about the design of my campus that I like? It might be the architecture of the buildings, but chances are that it's actually something that's harder to put a finger on—the interplay of buildings, trees, open spaces, views, and other elements . . . On the best campuses, the specific architectural vocabulary is often secondary—what matters is how the elements come together.” When I visited the University of Mississippi two years ago, I discovered in wandering the campus a confederate cemetery. Stanford boasts a mausoleum, home to Leland Stanford, Jr., and his family, and in the middle of some of the Main Quad's Richardsonian arches are little hearts. Both of those campuses are large and spread out; Columbia, in contrast, feels like the singularity at the moment of the Big Bang. All the materials of any Ivy League campus are there—the library, the various neoclassical buildings—but there’s so much less space between them. These are the elements, and they’re the strange things that make any campus stand out.

You can see one of the Stanford hearts on the third column from the left:

Ultimately, Biemiller argues against maintaining—or attempting to maintain—one architectural aesthetic on a university campus. It’s intellectually dishonest, he writes, when one architect is asked to reproduce not merely a style but the work of one other, specific architect or group of architects. (At, for example, Yale, with its elaborate and extravagant residential colleges designed by James Gamble Rogers.) It’s expensive. (Those buildings at Yale cost $2 million to build in the 1920s, Biemiller reports, and in 2007 Princeton paid $136 million to build a Collegiate Gothic residential college.) And it fails to keep the buildings in dialogue with one another, something at which Bowdoin College has apparently been very successful.

You might ask what all this has to do with books. Well, I’ve been thinking about tradition and design in publishing as well. Yesterday I attended a memorial service for Nina Bourne, a much-admired and long-established (she worked in publishing for seventy years) copywriter and advertiser, first at Simon & Schuster and then at Knopf. At the door we were given folders that contained a survey of Nina’s finest ad work, including pieces from the campaigns for Eloise and Catch-22. They were breathtaking. They were funny, they were sharp, they were irreverent—but best of all, they were just so full of text. In Nina’s time at Knopf, she perfected a style that The New York Times characterized thus: “large, clean, heavily bordered ads in black and white, with minimal copy used to create maximum impact.” Knopf still uses that style. It’s effective, it’s straightforward, and it’s smart. But I was filled with some longing. There was a real writerly flair in these ads. You could see Nina flexing her muscle behind them, and you could see wit.

Nina's ad for Catch-22:

To create such an ad now might reflect Biemiller’s argument about intellectual honesty and maintaining a contemporary aesthetic. Does anyone today want to read an ad that is mostly text, one that forms its own story and its own narrative? Would it look hopelessly dated, as much so as that UVA basketball arena, next to the minimalist, sparser ads that you find in papers today? Would it fail to read on its own terms, for its own virtues, instead seeming as much like a move of nostalgia as, say, publishing a book now with a jacket like this one?

(This might interest, by the way: comic books as mid-century paperbacks.)

Our company’s lobby is lined with such books as the above, and again, every time I see them, I’m filled with a wistfulness. There are many, many beautiful jackets designed every year, of course. But there’s something about the stark graphics, the purposeful lettering, and the more roughly hewn paper on jackets like the above that speaks to me. And I’m not sure it’s something we could return to, or really dabble in, today.

In his article, Biemiller warns against hewing too closely to an outdated aesthetic, and against the rigidity it brings with it. But the question I’d like to leave you with is the opposite: what if dedication to a contemporary aesthetic has brought with it an equal amount of rigidity? How do you reclaim what’s been lost?

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