TITLE: Lessons from 13 Books AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 18, 2005 11:32 AM DESC: A light look back on a career making books has lessons for us all. ----- BODY: I've recently run across in several different places recommendations for Leonard Koren's Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, so I thought I'd give it a read. My local libraries don't have it, so I'm still waiting. While looking, though, I saw another book by Koren, called 13 Books : (Notes on the Design, Construction & Marketing of my Last...). The title was intriguing, so I looked for it in the stacks. The back cover kept my attention, so I decided to read it this weekend. It contained the opening sentences of the book:
Authorship unavoidably implies a certain degree of expertise about the subject you are writing on. This has always troubled me because, although I have written numerous books on various subjects, I've never really considered myself an expert about anything. Recently, however, I had an encouraging realization. Surely I must know more about the making of the 13 books
... that he has written than anyone else! So he wrote this book, which consists of a discussion of each of his previous works, including his source of inspiration for the work, the greatest difficulty he faced in producing it, and one enduring lesson he learned from the experience. (This book ties back nicely to two previous entries here. First, it adds to my league-leading total for being the first reader of a book in my university library. Second, it was a gift to the library by Roy Behrens, a design professor here whose Ballast Quarterly Review I mentioned a few months ago.) 13 Books is clearly the product of a graphic designer who likes to explore the interplay between text and graphic elements and who likes to make atypical books. It's laid out in a style that may distract some readers. But, within the self-referential narrative, I found some of Koren's insights to be valuable beyond his experience, in terms of software, creativity, and writing. On software Projects ultimately develop their own identity, at which point the creator has a limited role in determining its shape. Koren learned this when he felt compelled to include a person in one of his books, despite the fact that he didn't like the guy, because it was essential to the integrity of the project. I feel something similar when writing programs in a test-code-refactor rhythm. Whether I like a particular class or construct, sometimes I'm compelled to create or retain it. The code is telling me something about its own identity. Just from its brief appearance in this book, I can see how the idea of wabi-sabi found an eager audience with software developers and especially XPers. Koren defines wabi-sabi as "a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete... a beauty of things modest and humble..." In the face of changing requirements and user preferences, we must recognize that our software is ever-changing. If our sense of beauty is bound up in its final state, then we are destined to design software in a way that aims at a perfect end -- only to see the code break down when the world around it changes. We need a more dynamic sense of beauty, one that recognizes beauty in the work-in-progress, in the system that needs a few more features to be truly useful, in the program whose refactoring is part of its essence. Later in the book, Koren laments that making paper books is "retrograde" to his tech friends. He then says, "And the concept of wabi-sabi, the stated antithesis of digital this and digital that, was, by extrapolation, of negligible cultural relevance." I see no reason that wabi-sabi stands in opposition to digital creations. I sense it my programs. Finally, here is my favorite quote from the book that is unwittingly about software:
The problem with bad craftsmanship is that it needlessly distracts from the purity of your communication; it draws away energy and attention; it raises questions in the reader's mind that shouldn't be there.
Koren writes of font, layout, covers, and bindings. But he could just as easily be writing of variable names, the indentation of code, comments, ... On creativity and learning At least one of the thirteen books was inspired by Koren's rummaging through his old files, aimlessly looking at photos. We've seen this advice before, even more compellingly, in Twyla Tharp's "start with a box". (That reminds me: I've been meaning to write up a more complete essay on that book...) Taking on projects for reasons of perceived marketability or laziness may sometimes make sense, but not if your goal is to learn:
The ideas for both books came too quickly and easily, and there was no subsequent concept of development. In my future books I would need to challenge myself more.
In building software systems, in learning new languages, in adopting new techniques -- the challenge is where you grow. In retrospect, Koren categorized his sources of inspiration for his books. The split is instructive: 40% were the next obvious step in a process, 30% came from hard work, and 30% were the result of "epiphanies from out of the blue". This means that fully two-thirds of his books resulted from the work of of being a creator, not from a lightning bolt. Relying on flashes of inspiration is a recipe for slow progress -- probably no progress at all, because I believe that those flashes ultimately flow from the mind made ready by work. On writing and publishing Koren is a graphic designer for whom books are the preferred medium. Throughout his career, he has often been dissatisfied with power imbalance between creators and publishers. He is constantly on the look-out for a new way to publish. For many, the web has opened new avenues for publishing books, articles, and software with little or no interference from a publisher. The real-time connectedness of the web has even made possible new modes of publication such as the blog, with conversations as a medium for creating and sharing ideas in a way. Blogs are often characterized as being ephemeral and light, but I think that we'll all be referring to Martin Fowler's essays and the Pragmatic Programmers' articles on their blogs for years to come. While Koren may remain a bookmaker, and despite his comments against digital technology as creative medium, I think his jangling, cross-linked, quick-hit style would play well in a web site. It might be interesting to see him produce an on-line work that marries the two. Heck, it's been been done with PowerPoint. As someone who has been reflecting a year writing this blog, I certainly recognize the truth in this statement:
A book need be grand neither in scale nor subject matter to find an audience.
Waiting until I have something grand to say is a sure way to paralyze myself. Finally, Koren offered this as the enduring lesson he learned in producing his book Useful Ideas from Japan:
Reducing topical information to abbreviated humorous tidbits is a road to popular cultural resonance.
It seems that Koren has the spirit of a blogger after all. -----