Consider the Container of Literature

The McSweeney’s Experience

May 21, 2016
by Ken Gordon
ASHhero

1.

Over in the empathy-lined halls of innovation, some people take packaging seriously. Very seriously. (Just ask ‘em, for instance, about how small changes in packaging can be an absurdly huge deal!) It’s easy to understand why they care so much about the sustainability and economic aspects of packaging consumer goods… but as a guy reared in the wilds of the English Department—a serious consumer only when it comes to books—it’s hard for me to feel as passionately about packaging. (Books are primarily content, not form; especially since the Kindle and its electronic ilk arrived.) Well, it was hard until a few weeks ago.

The external form of literature matters very much—but most of the people who work on the packaging are unwilling or unable to take this idea out for a test run.

Y’see, Continuum is moving to Boston's Innovation District, and as we prepare to schlep across town, my pal Jon Campbell exhumed some old issues of McSweeney's, bought a while back as part of a research project. Instead of tossing them onto our quickly swelling hillocks of corporate detritus, he arranged them carefully on my desk. If you didn’t know better, you might have looked at this desk and seen, say, a cigar box; a paper burrito; a box-shaped, red-faced creature; and a pile of junk mail rubber-banded together—but to the literary-minded observer, it was horde of culture, from the endlessly inventive Dave Eggers. (Disclosure: my company was proud to do work for Eggers’ peerless educational nonprofit, 826 Boston.) It was a gift. A veritable literary goldmine.

2.

Reviewing my loot, I realized that literature’s central lie about itself is this: packaging doesn’t matter. You know the rusty old saw about “not judging a book by its cover”? That bit of content-driven propaganda has caused generations of people to assume that literature is always and only about what happens inside.

It’s just not true.

Book covers in general get a bad rap, and I’d like to take a minute to say a word on their behalf. Like “the love of money,” which in our cliché-clouded minds is inevitably married to “the root of all evil,” book covers have been unfairly typecast in our language (if not our culture). “Never judge a book by its cover!” warned Mrs. Cooke in kindergarten, and we believed her. And we’ve never quite stopped. Book covers have become the symbol of all that is shallow: the skin, the surface, the mere appearance of things. This is just wrong. A cover is the face of a book, and only a person with a crippled sense of literacy would ignore the meanings to be read there because of the vague promptings of a grade school catchphrase.

3.

The fact is, the external form of literature matters very much—but most of the people who work on the packaging are unwilling or unable to take this idea out for a test run. Dave Eggers isn’t. He knows that the more he pushes the idea of design, the more intrigued readers will be, and the more special and interesting the experience of each issue will become. And that—that—is something innovation people think about all the time: moving from product to experience.

The McSweeney’s experience was a profound reminder that sometimes, in design, we need to go beyond the merely functional and reach for the region of delight.

What a unique experience it was! I brought my bounty home to show my kids, who are 13 and 11, and their heads nearly exploded with excitement. Not because I had somehow obtained some rare artifacts of literary hipness, but because said artifacts were so darned much fun to look at. To play with. I have never—ever—seen my children more entranced with human-fabricated objects. The amount of pure delight produced by their mere interaction with the surface of these products was astonishing. The kids didn’t care that they were holding a Robert Coover story, produced as a set of cards, or a Charles Simic poem folded into a paper burrito… they merely knew that someone had been messing around, in a serious way, with the idea of content delivery, and they loved it. This was a million miles from where we, as a family, ate burritos and read literature-covered Chipotle bags, in the pre-norovirus era. It was a true experience of packaging as delight-generation! My kids asked if we could subscribe…

4.

Soon after the wave of absolute enthusiasm crashed, we stashed our McSweeney’s stuff on a shelf in the study—to ensure that it would remain in good repair. Though, of course, when new visitors show up, we pull it off the shelf for some literary show-and-tell.

Now, when I get a glimpse of the McSweeney’s pile, I think, “You know, I never did read anything in there.” Why? In large part, because the text within was just too difficult to access. (I don’t want to read a deck of cards: I want to read a story!) The elaborate, funky, interesting design, in fact, prevented me from digging into the words within. Could it be that, despite the delight, these experiments were less useful to me, as a reader, than a straightforward paperback journal?

Yeah, it could. Fact is, conventional design—utility, or readability—matters very much in literary delivery systems. We’re extremely faithful to the form-follows-function ethos, and may be inclined sometimes to shut down an idea that seems perhaps a little too odd or unique. The McSweeney’s experience was a profound reminder that sometimes, in design, we need to go beyond the merely functional and reach for the region of delight.

Know what? I’m going to transport my collection of weirdo McSweeney’s stuff from my home and install it at my new desk, over in our new home at the Innovation and Design Building. Stop by my desk sometime, and we can consider the container of literature. Books have every right to be experientially interesting as objects, not just as conventional containers for ideas.

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