The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback

May 15, 2012
Electronic Information Age Book

by Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Adam Michaels
Princeton Architectural Press, 216 pp., $19.95

JOHN WELSH - The Message of the Book


By dawn’s early light a young couple neck on Avenue A in New York’s lower East Side. In her left hand she holds a paperback copy of The Electric Information Age Book. Now available! It’s the book of the year: a true story about the history of the future. The real future, baby. A book that will show what’s happening when what’s happening has already happened—a long time ago, in the electric information age, when advertising spoke a language of pop-art optimism without a trace of irony, and it seemed as though everything was just about to change and that all new directions were possible. It was a time, much like ours, when the ongoing rush of technology and innovation was both terrifying and exciting, as the flickering glow of a rectangular screen—then the television, now the Kindle—prophesied the death of the book.
In terms of its content, The Electric Information Age Book is a work about the past. It operates as a history or “inventory” of a particular movement in American publishing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A major figure in this movement was Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist and cult phenomenon perhaps best remembered today for his maxim that “the medium is the message.” It was a way of articulating the idea that content never speaks independently of form, that the mode of delivery matters just as much as what is delivered. As with all of Adam Michael’s INVENTORY BOOKS, The Electric Information Age Book is certainly no exception; the medium is most certainly the message. This paperback “flouts perceived boundaries between form and content” by unleashing a dizzying array of typographical, visual, and scholarly experimentation including “unconventional narrative modes, syntheses of texts and images, and context-specific typography.” In terms of its form, it is not a book about the past—or indeed, not exclusively about the past—but also a work about the future, the seemingly bleak future of the book. “Amid heightened anxieties about the continued viability of the printed book,” Michaels comments, “producers could do well to make use of the technology’s latent potentials, embracing the book’s intrinsic strengths as a site for synthesis and surprise, for materializing the dematerialized, and for distributing vital ideas beyond the bounds of the digital divide.” If the book is to flourish in the digital information age, it must continually defy attempts to reduce the idea of what a book can or should be by looking not only to the future but to the past—or better yet, by looking to the future through an understanding of the past. To a certain extent, Michaels advocates avant-garde book design as a process of remembering. After all, “nearly every textual technique considered today to be a signifier of avant-garde book design (e.g. multiple narratives and annotation, marked by contrasting letterforms; complex columnar grids; usage of color for differentiation; integrated illustrations with text; unusual bindings; and so on) was already worked through centuries ago by scribes producing illuminated manuscripts.”
It is through the history of the book and the history of the avant-garde that Michaels meets his collaborator and the driving force of the Electric Information Age Book: Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Professor of Italian and digital humanities guru at Harvard University. Schnapp’s preposterously diverse research interests stretch from 14th century Dante manuscripts, to F.T. Marinetti’s futurist manifestoes, to contemporary architectural design, and the curatorship of museum space. The Electric Information Age Book marks Schnapp’s debut as an Americanist, chronicling a stretch from 1966 and 1975 when former “backstage” players in the publishing industry—designers, graphic artists, editors, “coordinators”, and “producers”—crafted a unique set of paperback books that featured extensive visual and typographical experimentation. He describes the book as an inventory that provides “an itemization, history, and detailed account of a set of cultural objects produced between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, during the heyday of what was then referred to as the television, or the electric information age.” The electric information age book, “[u]shered in by cybernetics, television, the paperback revolution, the counterculture, and, especially, pop art” was designed as the “the first book designed for the TV age.” In embracing the influence of television, it envisioned not only a more visual style, but also a mass-market appeal. “New mergers of the high and low are the result,” Schnapp explains, “THE BOOK PRODUCER consorts with the ENGLISH LIT PROFESSOR who, once disinclined to admit the commodity gods into the modernist pantheon, is now ready to abandon the Ivory Tower for the glitter and hubbub of the marketplace.”
From the opening pages of the very first example, 1966’s The Medium is the Message, the electric information age book is marked by three primary characteristics:
— a high degree of self-reference,
— eclecticism as a design strategy, and
— an emphasis on the human body (as the site where media “imprint” their messages.”
On a deeper level, what unites this diverse set of texts is a shared emphasis on “the activation of the reader that operates at the perceptual/organizational level.” Frequently, as in well-known examples like The Medium is the Message or I Seem to Be a Verb (1970), the electric information age book served as a vehicle to present the ideas of “major thinkers”—such as McLuhan or R. Buckminster Fuller—in a more popularly accessible form by translating these ideas into an emerging “photo-driven graphic vernacular.” According to Schnapp, all manifestations of the electric information age book “communicate some version of the following script to the reader: even if this book is ‘by’ a major thinker, you fill in the blanks, you connect the dots, you navigate the book forward or backward to find the tasty tidbits; look for the patterns, ideas, and the story line yourself. They tender the promise that, if you follow these instructions, in return, you will discover that not only is this a book about you, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your world, but also about how to make them yours.” Highly collaborative projects, electric information age books featured extensive creative input from “minor” personnel from the publishing industry, such as book producers, typesetters and graphic designers. The resulting work was not a book “by” Marshal McLuhan or “by” R. Buckminster Fuller or even “by” anyone in particular, but a collaborative effort that embraced a plural model of authorship in which publishing personnel are not simply contributors or collaborators, but elevated to the status of true co-authors.
The first and most famous example of the electric information age book, The Medium is the Message, thus features not one but three listed authors. Joining McLuhan on the front cover were Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel, the most original characters and the true protagonists of the Electric Information Age Book. The influence of these two figures in the formation of the genre cannot be overemphasized. Take, for example, I Seem to Be a Verb, “a FAST-PACED CRAZY QUILT of late-1960s life” with R. Buckminster Fuller serving as “pretext and glue” for the journey. In this paperback, perhaps the graphic masterpiece of the genre, “no more than a quarter of the overall content derives from Fuller.” Schnapp explains:
Fiore, an “avid student of ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS,” was a fairly well-known graphic designer whose “most visible creation” was the alphabet on the rotary dial of the standard Bell Telephone. He would go on to provide the illustrations for many of the most famous examples of the electric information age book. But the most unique figure in the rise of this new kind of paperback was unquestionably Jerome Agel, who was instrumental in the creation of an entirely new job description in the publishing industry: the “book producer.” According to Schnapp, Agel “understood himself not as a book packager but as a book producer operating like a cinematographic or theatrical producer.” Among other things, this meant that Agel acted as a maestro of marketing, playing with the idea of what a book could be even outside the boundaries of the physical object. In this case of The Medium is the Massage, for example, Agel sold the book with all the shamelessness and panache of a Madison Avenue ad executive, enacting a sort of viral marketing campaign avant la letter through intriguing ads such as this one:
This ad and others like it appeared in Books, a “tabloid-sized monthly” literary magazine where Agel served as editor, publisher and promoter of the writings by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Leonard Cohen, Norman Mailer, and John Cage. One of the most exquisitely funny artifacts contained in the Electric Information Age Book is an article written by Agel describing the purpose and function of Books:
The reader will, I hope, forgive this lengthy quotation for the sake of the point of arrival: “books, authors, films, viable ideas—people—aren’t as dull as others make them out to be.” Or at least they certainly don’t have to be. If you are thinking of the book only as something dull, limited, and obsolescent, something chained to a dying analog past, then you are not thinking correctly.
This is the ultimate message and the true spirit of both the electric information age book and The Electric Information Age Book. It is not only a wonderful example of non-traditional, innovative scholarship but a pure intellectual and tactile delight. As a piece of craftsmanship, it reflects considerable attention to detail, functioning both inside and outside as a perfect pastiche of the original mass-market paperbacks by adopting not only their typographical style but their precise physical dimensions. Like Jonathan Safran Foer’s mesmerizingly beautiful die-cut Tree of Codes, The Electric Information Age Book is a convincing argument that—nearly six centuries after Gutenberg—the physical book still has plenty of surprises in store. Read cover to cover, sampled at random, retrieved from a glove compartment, consumed in reverse, glanced at while necking on Avenue A, gobbled up in any way whatsoever, The Electric Information Age Book will be relished by any lover of books. Come to think of it, even book-haters may find plenty to love. In the spirit of the subject, this review will close with a variation of the most frequently recycled fragment in the canon of the information age book, a possibly apocryphal snippet that first appears in Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970), and again in Is Today Tomorrow? (1972), Herman Kahnsciousness (1973), and It’s About Time & It’s About Time (1975):