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Bookmaking and the ‘Pictorial Webster’s’

Do you remember, as a child, asking your parents or a teacher what a word meant and then having a big, dusty old dictionary dropped into your hands? I can remember flipping through the pages of an unabridged dictionary when I was a wee one and finding those charming illustrations that accompanied the definitions that required more than words. No matter how many times my cousins assured me, I could never find a dictionary with my picture in it next to the entry for gullible.

The Pictorial Webster’s—compiled, printed and bound by bookmaker John M Carrera—is a dictionary composed of such illustrations: Over the course of a decade-long journey, Carrera scouted, categorized and organized the original 19th century wood engravings and copper electrotypes that went into the making of some of the earliest Merriam-Webster dictionaries. He then retrofitted them to his own linotype machine to create a leather-bound collection of ink and paper curios.

But what he created was more than just a novelty coffee table book. It can also be thought of as a kind of graphic novel: In the prospectus, Carrera calls on the book’s audience to read it like a stream of consciousness story or a “visual Finnegans Wake“. As readers turn the pages, we can’t help but spot recurring characters, create relationships between the images and develop narratives. Various anthropologists over the years have thought of reclassifying human beings as homo narrans, or ‘the storytelling man’, because we think in narratives.

Also, if you’re lucky enough to own a copy of one of the limited-run hand-printed editions (alas, I am not), you hold in your hands a case study of the vast history and beauty of bookmaking.

The standard edition is bound in goatskin alum-tawed leather and is styled with fore-edge artwork and type tooled into the leather. Carrera has discussed printing one on vellum as well, and a cloth bound edition is available for vegans or those who can’t quite afford the leather edition.

These hand printed Pictorial Webster’s are unique, organic pieces of art. Each copy has a unique relationship with the engravings, with the printing press, with the binder and finally with the reader. But if you were not lucky enough to purchase on of the handmade books, there is a trade version (as well as a pocket-sized dictionary) that allow us commoners to create something organic too.

When we hold a book—when we cry over one, when we put comments in the margins or write inscriptions to loved ones on the inside covers, when we read it out in the rain or stow it away in a dusty attic to be discovered by future generations—we imprint our lives on it, and it warps to our humanity.

from ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’

“Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know – because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly, Dot. And when I got it it turned to dust in my hands.”

~ Anthony Patch from The Beautiful and Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald

Putting a Cover Over ‘Lolita’

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, has intrigued and outraged readers for decades, and over the years book designers have had no picnic coming up with a suitable, but also marketable, book cover.

Part of the problem stems from the public’s misconceptions of the titular character. Often when people think of Lolita, they think of the jailbait seductress with come-hither eyes sucking on her lollipop from Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation (just a few years ago a British department store got in trouble for naming a girls’ bedroom set after the character), but it’s readers of the novel who realize Lolita‘s titular character is really just a mixed-up, orphaned, 12-year-old girl forced to drop out of middle school, wander the country, and provide sexual companionship for a Frenchman in his 30s whom she is financially (and legally) dependent on.

In 2009, John Bertram, himself a designer, decided to hold a contest (which is being turned into a book) to “re-cover” LolitaCover designs range from subtly disturbing to grossly inappropriate, but one of the things that makes Lolita so difficult to wrap your head around (never mind wrap a cover around) is that to describe the plot is to retell a horror story, but when you actually start to read it, you are blinded by the beauty of the language, and it’s not long until Nabokov begins to corrupt you and make you laugh at the absurd, almost Looney Tunes like, pursuits of the narrator, Humbert Humbert. In the end you start to question your own morality when you begin to feel bad for him.

Accurately capturing the contents of this book is a careful balancing act, but I think the above cover, designed by Jamie Keenan, provides perfect representation of the text: At first glance, it is elegant and beautifully crafted, but after a moment’s study you see that it is at the same time disturbing and, frankly, kind of hilarious.

Defining ‘Nice’ and ‘Good’

I’ve never liked the word nice. It’s a word that is used so often—and for so many things— that it almost lacks meaning. In the 1800s, Jane Austen poked fun at the word in her satire of Gothic literature:

“It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.” (Northanger Abbey, 1817)

And over a hundred years later HW Fowler, that grumpy grammarian, continued the hazing:

[Nice] has been spoilt, like CLEVER, by its bonnes fortunes ; it has been too great a favourite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diftuser of vague & mild agreeableness. Everyone who uses it in its more proper senses, which fill most of the space given to it in any dictionary, & avoids the modern one that tends to oust them all, does a real if small service to the language. (A Dictionary Modern English Usage, 1926)

When used to describe people, it seems to be used as a high compliment for those whom we don’t know enough about to describe otherwise. ‘He seemed like such a nice boy’, is what the neighbors of serial killers always say. It’s no wonder the word comes from the French meaning ‘clumsy, weak, needy, simple, stupid’ and ultimately from Latin meaning, ‘ignorant, unaware’. Nice is often used as a synonym for good, but the qualities of a ‘nice person’ are often quiet, meek or pitiable which aren’t exactly qualities that scream ‘goodness’ to me.

Good, on the other hand, is a descriptor that is under-used (or at least under-appreciated). Nice is superficial while good takes conviction. Nice is a gesture, but good requires action. Nice is sympathy; good indicates moral fiber. Nice is sentimental, and good is compassionate. Charlie Brown isn’t nice; Charlie Brown is a good man.

Good is love in the fiercest sense of the word. Not in that cliché sense of rainbows and peace signs and a choir of children, but in a sense of righteousness and strength in the face of evil or indifference. Next time you want to compliment someone, consider calling them good rather than nice. But do it on a judgement of character rather than superficialities.

Defining ‘I Could Care Less’

When I hear someone use the phrase I could care less, I immediately stop listening because I really could not care less about what they have to say. Yeah, I know that’s an overreaction—people misspeak all the time—but what’s particularly annoying is that when called out on this meaningless turn of phrase, people will often defend it:

“Oh, you know what I mean. English is a living language!”

The problem is, I couldn’t care less is not an idiom or a borrowed phrase from another language that may have evolved (or been corrupted) over time. It’s a series of words meant to be taken literally. It’s like saying, ‘One plus one is three.’ Sure, I know what you mean, but that doesn’t stop it from being stupid.

Yes, English is a living language, but I could care less could never be taken as standard no matter how many people use it. Just image how a dictionary might define it:

could care less – (idiom) phrase meaning ‘could not care less’

A Review of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

There is a distinct difference between elegant and gaudy, and that difference is very important to the plot of The Great Gatsby and what makes it a classic.

This new film completely misses that point.

from ‘Tender Is the Night’ (again)

“England was like a rich man after a disastrous orgy who makes up to the household by chatting with them individually, when it is obvious to them that he is only trying to get back his self-respect in order to usurp his former power.”

~ from Tender Is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

from ‘Tender Is the Night’

“He was ashamed at baiting the man, realizing that the absurdity of the story rested in the immaturity of the attitude combined with the sophisticated method of its narration.”

~ from Tender Is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

4 Ways to Prepare for Employment

It’s graduation season, and that means millions of graduates are about to enter ‘the real world’. So to help the transition, I’ve gathered a few useful sources for budding young professionals.

1. Extracurricular Education:

As you’re sorting through job ads, you may find that the positions you’re looking for require skills you don’t yet have. Sometimes a course isn’t offered at your school, or you may prefer a more informal learning environment. Luckily, there are plenty of skills you can learn online without worrying about prerequisites.

Codecademy will teach the complete novice programing and web design for free! HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP. Oh, and did I mention it’s free? provides video tutorials for pretty much every computer program you can think of, but you do have to pay for a subscription.

2. Social Networking:

Many employers look for people with social networking skills. Knowing how to use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pintrest, etc puts you ahead of the curve with some older employees who are unfamiliar with this new phenomenon. This doesn’t just mean knowing how to post a picture or tweet about a sandwich you had, but knowing how to use these media as marketing tools.

Also consider starting a blog, and update it consistently (that’s why I have this blog). This shows employers dedication to your craft, and that you can maintain a project punctually and consistently.

3. Finding Internships:

As I said in my post about graduate school, I find internships to be an extremely important college experience, and I found InternMatch to be the best database for finding one.

It will help you find internships and in a particular industry, and you can narrow results by location, field, paid vs. unpaid, and summer/fall/winter/spring internships.

It also has a good-looking and easy-to-use interface. It functions as an online community where employers can find you based on your interests, it includes tips on resume and cover letter writing, and it will update you if internships pop up in your chosen field.

4. Portfolio Advice:

Putting together a portfolio is a necessity for any creative person. Whether it means getting hired, applying to school, or just building a showcase, having a portfolio to show off you’re work is essential.

These are the sites I found most helpful when putting together my own portfolio:

I also suggest wandering around the Web and looking at what sorts of portfolios others in your field have produced. How do they format their about page? What forms of contact do they allow? What sorts of social networking are included (or not included)?

You’ll want to consider what level of professionalism your portfolio conveys and what skills you portray. Remember that a portfolio is not about you, but about what you can offer the viewer.

Should I Go to College?

It’s graduation season, and all of the fresh-faced high school graduates are eager to start the college experience, but here are a few things to consider before applying:

Think about taking a year off

I highly recommend taking a year off between high school and college. Personally, I feel it should even be federally encouraged. For many, college is just a continuation of high school, but college is most useful when you know exactly what you want from it.

It’s easiest to get somewhere when you know where you’re going. If you have a goal set in place for when you plan to graduate, then college can take you anywhere. But if you wander through college with no direction, then college can very really take you nowhere.

Before jumping into higher education, design your college experience so that it fits in with your life plan, or so that it fulfills those goals you hope to accomplish before you enter the job market.

As I said in my post about grad school, there are much more fulfilling ways to postpone adulthood than more expensive schooling. Travel somewhere, learn a new religion, pursue a love interest. School isn’t the only place to learn, but when you do enter college, use your time wisely. It’ll pass quicker than you think.

Ask yourself, Do I need college to do what I want to do?

I don’t want to discourage anyone from furthering their education, but I think it’s important to take a look at exactly what you want from life. Many new baccalaureates look out into the job market and find that a degree is not the same thing as experience, and often, experience is preferred.

Many famous writers never went to college. Many musicians only go to college to meet other musicians (and drop out when their band is formed). For all intents and purposes, college is probably a good idea (even if only to network), but don’t let college get in the way of what you want to do.

Ask yourself, Is this the right college for me?

After you decide you definitely want to go to college, carefully consider your options. There are so many schools out there with very precise degree programs, that you should consider a program that gives you exactly what you want, because when you’re spending that much time and money, there’s no such thing as close enough.

Consider beginning at a community college

Community colleges have an unfair stigma in our culture. We tend to think of them as pretend colleges for people who can’t get into a real school, but there are plenty of great community colleges that will give you the same education as a state school. So why pay $10-20 thousand per semester when you can spend $2 thousand for the same education?

Community colleges also tend to allow their students greater independence and flexibility. For those of you with life obligations other than school—or for those of you who just don’t want to be trapped in the sometimes over-protective college environment —community colleges are a great option.