In Praise of Prose

Lewis Nicholson

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

For my generation, especially growing up, books were THE authoritative resource for information and offered an affordable, well-crafted, highly intimate, intellectually engrossing, convenient, portable and practically inexhaustible source of knowledge and escape. My parents were avid readers and both made a living from writing (my dad wrote for newspapers, my mom for magazines, and both had been copywriters in advertising). At home I was exposed to a rich variety of books (and magazines and newspapers) and encouraged to read from an early age. However, my passion for reading and for books—seeking them out for pleasure rather than merely out of a sense of duty—didn’t really kick-in until my mid-teens (and in response to a very enthusiastic and charismatic English teacher who I desperately wanted to impress). At Mr Hudgel’s request, I sat down one afternoon and read my first, very short, ‘adult’ novel, Candide by Voltaire, and experienced the joy of complete immersion in someone else’s world while also discovering that a satirical portrait of an ‘alien’ culture, written way back when (1759) by someone much older than myself, could still seem extremely funny, irreverent, insightful and relevant to an awkward, unfocused adolescent heavy metal music fan living in London in the 1970’s.

Briefly, some of the things I love most about reading: the emancipating quality of being able to take in information at my own pace; of being able to stop and reflect at will; drifting in and out of the internal, cerebral world to the physical reality one is in at any given moment; the enrichment that comes from exposure to experiences, situations, attitudes and understanding that would otherwise have not occurred to me; the temporary escape from my own, well worn, internal thought patterns and processes; the critical stimuli of exposure to materials that illuminate, baffle, provoke, emote, confirm, contradict, charm, infuriate, etc.; the moments that ring bells, ring true, and leave me breathlessly in awe of a writer’s ability to find the perfect language to express so succinctly a thought I recognize but have struggled to articulate myself; the escape from my own limited experience and understanding, or my current challenging realities and responsibilities by allowing someone else, remotely, to direct my thoughts and experiences for a while; being able to mark pages and write notes in the margins.

In times of sickness, despair, depression, reading books has offered me incredible solace and a temporary sanctuary from my own imperfect reality; and expanded my understanding, vocabulary, and options for expression. Books have also, to an immeasurable degree, affected my sense of reality, what I feel and believe, how I view myself and the world, what I wish for, what I fight against, what I aspire to. Reading last thing at night makes me sleep more soundly, dream more vividly. Reading in the morning gets my brain in gear for the day ahead.

Everything is information, dip into and immerse yourself in as much of it as you can regardless of form or context. Find, in all the wealth of materials on this planet, what resonates specifically with you. Start somewhere, anywhere, and just keep going. Cram your minds with information, any information, because you never know what might prove useful at some point. Books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, movies, TV, podcasts, music, art, design, the worldwide web, conversation, reflecting and pontificating, are all potentially enriching sources of information. In fact, books as a designed and practical knowledge interface/substrate/medium, and as a democratic and accessible form of information distribution and sharing, may well prove a very short-lived phenomenon (despite their clear historical relevance). But long forms of communication, such as books, are exceptionally richly layered as experiences and the revelations with each new letter, word, with each turn of the page, moving through the information, the information moving through you, are lessons in nuanced expression and effective organization.

Information absorbed this intimately and employing such a heightened degree of focus—from abstract characters on a page into vivid concepts in your brain—stays with you, lingers, makes an impression and builds the complexity and depth of the intellectual resources you carry around with you and can call upon and conjure with at any time. Learning the fundamentals of reading and writing is one of the most challenging and complex skills a human being ever undertakes, so having mastered these skills, to some degree or other, it would be a shame not to take advantage of this extraordinary and hard earned expertise.

It’s simply not possible for me to condense my years of reading and arrive at a definitive list of a handful of publications I could confidently recommend to others. Texts that have been particularly pertinent to me, and my own peculiar sensibilities, may well not resonate at all with those living through and responding to very different realities. However, here is some kind of attempt to oblige.

Books that were particularly inspiring for me at Art School:

Ways of Seeing / About Looking / Another Way of Telling / A Fortunate Man by John Berger (interesting perspectives on how we view and evaluate the image); Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek (the first book I read about design, it destroyed all the assumptions I had previously held dear); Various monograms about the artist John Heartfield (a collage artist/graphic designer who challenged and ridiculed Nazi Party propaganda in 1940’s Germany), Selected Writings by Antonin Artaud (a performance artist/radical theatre actor and director whose life and work pushed beyond what was considered acceptable); The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (which challenged my assumptions about what a book could do), Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan (as astute and relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago); The Journals of Jean Cocteau (my first taste of extreme bohemian thinking and expression); Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman (stark and poetic storytelling), The Complete Little Nemo by Windsor McKay (a ridiculously inventive weekly newspaper comic strip from the 1920’s riffing on Freudian dream theory!)

A Selection of Books I Have Regularly Recommended to Students: (I am painfully aware that most of the books listed in this section are written by white men which is neither an accurate reflection of the demographics of our students or the current art and design professions or how wisdom is distributed amongst the sexes or ethnicities, but is sadly reflective of the historical domination of Caucasian white males in both academia and the arts and my own too limited exposure to works of greater cultural diversity.)

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
An important consideration of the tendency for dominant human civilizations through out history to self-destruct and the catastrophic potential of this happening on a global scale)

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Envisioning Information
Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte
Three impeccably written, designed and illustrated books demonstrating numerous approaches to information visualization.

The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design by Vilém Flusser
Accessible and provocative theory connecting numerous aspects of human designed culture in an intriguing, often poetic, and provocative fashion.

Speculative Everything by Dunne & Raby
A ‘Critical Design’ primer for developing alternative design practices that challenge and question the assumptive, service culture of mainstream design and relationship to its audience.

The Conversations; Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje
Revealing and stimulating conversations shared by the Canadian author, Ondaatje, and one of Hollywood’s most accomplished movie editors, Murch, considering the richly layered relationships between sound, image and mind.

Looking Closer (a series of publications) Edited by Michael Beirut, Jessica Helfand, Steven Heller, Rick Poyner, etc.
Historical and contemporary critical writing about graphic design from a wide range of sources and commentators.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
A thorough consideration of contemporary food production and culture and the ethical minefields one has to navigate for something so basic and essential as a nutritious meal. Hopefully, it will put you off eating at MacDonald’s ever again.

Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice by Tony Fry
A book that seriously considers, and attempts to articulate, the need for a more profound understanding and application of sustainable practices within political, and particularly, design culture in order to avoid potential ecological disaster. Ambitious, provocative and, one hopes, inspiring.

Interviews (Vol. 1) by Hans Ulrich Obrist
A large selection of wide-ranging conversations with some of the leading lights of contemporary art. , Somewhat scattered in style and quality but great to dip into.

Shift: Positions / Shift: Perspectives / Shift: Approaches / Shift: Conventions / etc., and Rivet (editions 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) by various authors and editors
OCAD U’s very own Student Press publications. Largely featuring upper year student work and thesis research considerations across all disciplines.

A Small Selection of Fiction I Have Loved: Blood Meridian / The Road by Cormack McCarthy; One Hundred Years of Solitude / Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis; Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam (trilogy) by Margaret Atwood; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre; East of Eden by John Steinbeck; Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware; The Rings of Saturn (and everything else) by W.G. Sebald; The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje; Oranges are not the Only Fruit, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson; Orlando and A Room of My Own by Virginia Woolf; The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; In the Country of Last Things (and just about everything else) by Paul Auster; Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs; The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler; etc.

My Favourite Books from 2nd hand Bookstores: I See All (a visual encyclopedia, images crammed onto pages and arranged alphabetically); Mauder’s Treasury of Natural History (archaic and delightfully fanciful information and illustrations); Packaging Catalogue 1936 (with all the original paper sample tip-ins); Buck & Hickman Tool Catalogue 1930 (voluminous, comprehensive tome, hand engraved images, handset type), Turtox Biological Supplies Catalogue 1966 (amazing collection of bizarre artifacts); a miniature Food Diary 1929 (completed by hand describing their daily food intake and their detrimental physical affects).

Favourite Second-hand bookstore in Toronto: The Monkey’s Paw (Dundas west of Ossington)

Favourite Podcast: RadioLab

Favourite Periodical: Cabinet

Currently Reading: Wages of Rebellion by Chris Hodges, Memoires of an Addicted Brain by Marc Lewis; The Meaning of Anxiety by Rollo May; One River by Wade Davis; On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky

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