Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bollingen Foundation

The birds and the books

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The Anatomy of Melancholy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What have you bought based on its cover alone?”

In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept called the good genes hypothesis—closely related to the delightfully named “sexy son hypothesis”—that states that such seemingly useless traits as elaborate plumage in birds can indicate real genetic advantages to potential mates. It’s hard to keep a bright, bulky set of tail feathers intact, and since it makes it harder to flee and increases visibility, it even puts its owner at increased risk of being eaten. A male that is capable of surviving with an inconvenient tail presumably has correspondingly good instincts or stamina, and it’s those qualities, rather than the tail itself, that make him attractive to females. Plumage or other aspects of a bird’s appearance can also be a sign of overall health. Parasites, for instance, can reduce the sheen of ultraviolet feathers in such species as the satin bowerbird, and comb size in roosters is a decent proxy for levels of testosterone, which affects health in other ways. And the size of the comb can be reduced by such issues as intestinal worms. In other words, there appears to be a strong evolutionary rationale on the species level for developing some sort of quickly processed signal, even if it seems otherwise pointless, that allows females to distinguish between prospects at a glance.

You could say much the same about art. It’s impossible to accurately and rapidly judge a book or movie in its entirety, so audiences develop heuristic shortcuts to make decisions about what to consume, and many of these cues are all but unconscious. Sound design, for example, is an exceptionally useful way to distinguish between films, but only in a negative sense. Many excellent movies have made a point of violating the usual standards of conventional cinematography, with grainy film stock, digital video, or shaky camerawork, but few have ever made an aesthetic virtue out of muddy sound. When we see a clip from a movie with awful sound design, we know at once that it’s likely to be amateurish in other important respects. (Of course, this is only really useful when it comes to independent productions: most studio films have advanced to the point where such technical departments as sound and lighting are always of high quality, even if other aspects suffer.) If I were an independent filmmaker, no matter how small my budget, I’d spend whatever it took in order to get an experienced sound team, as well as a good editor, and I’d prioritize it well above the cameras. We’re likely to give a low-budget movie with sloppy cinematography the benefit of the doubt, but we’ll turn off a movie with bad sound within a few seconds.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Similar factors apply to our choices of what books to read. As with movies, such aspects as cover design, typography, and paper quality are most effective as negative indicators: if the publisher clearly hasn’t taken much of an interest in a book’s tactile and visual qualities—either out of indifference or because of a lack of resources—it isn’t likely to have lavished much care on the contents, either. (Whenever I open a novel to see a ragged right margin and a sans-serif font, I close it at once. It may not be fair, but I don’t want to spend hours staring at that kind of page.) The fact that a book is handsomely packaged doesn’t mean that it’s any good, but it at least indicates the publisher’s confidence in the material. Such rules of thumb don’t always work: The Goldfinch is about as gorgeously mounted an example of the bookseller’s art as you’ll find, but I found it underwhelming as a novel. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the books I love are almost always a pleasure to handle as well as to read. This doesn’t mean that they have to be gilt-edged and hand-tooled, and in fact, handsome leather editions of the classics often strike me as in bad taste. But I’ll always have a weakness for a cleanly designed, attractively typeset paperback with a little heft to its pages.

In short, I’ve spent much of my reading life operating under the assumption that a book that shows obvious care in small details of design and presentation will devote a similar degree of attention to its words and ideas, at least on the editor’s side. And I’m not often steered wrong. Looking around my home office, I see countless titles to which I was drawn mostly because of how they struck my eye. It’s likely that I was first attracted to the Burton Club edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night because of how nice it looked lined up on the shelves of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and I’ve discovered many books that ended up being hugely important in my life, like The Anatomy of Melancholy, because they stood out in a used bookstore. And it’s fair to say that my own prejudices and tastes have been shaped by a lifetime of browsing in particular kinds of bookshops, in which the most interesting titles often dated from an era before digital typesetting and the widespread use of sans fonts. Someone who browses for books online, as I increasingly do, will develop a different set of heuristics, and if I recently became obsessed with the titles published by the Bollingen Library, it’s because they invariably come close to my ideal of how a book should look. And now that every new book’s contents are nothing but metadata, browsing itself is going out of style. But it never hurts to check out the plumage.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2015 at 8:38 am

The Bollingen Library and the future of media

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

About a year ago, I began to notice that many of the books in my home library came from the same place. It all started when I realized that Kenneth Clark’s The Nude and E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion—two of the most striking art books of the century—had originally been delivered as part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art and published by the Bollingen Library. Looking more closely, I found that the Bollingen Foundation, whatever that was, had been responsible for countless other titles that have played important roles in my life and those of other readers: Vladimir Nabokov’s massive translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, the Richard Wilhelm edition of the I Ching, D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Huntington Cairns’s extraordinary anthology The Limits of Art, and, perhaps most famously, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Intrigued, I sought out more books from the Bollingen imprint, looking for used copies online and purchasing them sight unseen. So far, I’ve acquired tomes like The Survival of the Pagan Gods, The Eternal Present, The Gothic Cathedral, and The Demands of Art. Along with a shared concern with the humanities and their role in modern life, they’re all physically beautiful volumes, a delight to hold and browse through, and I hope to acquire more for as long as I can.

Which, when you think about it, is highly unusual. Most of us don’t pay much attention to the publishers of the books we buy: we may subconsciously sense that, say, the Knopf imprint is a mark of quality, but we don’t pick up a novel solely because of the borzoi logo on the spine. (The one big exception may be Taschen, which has built up a reputation for large, indecently attractive coffee table books.) Publishers would love it if we did, of course, just as television networks and movie studios would be happy if we automatically took their brands as a seal of approval. That’s rare in any medium: HBO and Disney have managed it, but not many more. So it’s worth taking a closer look at Bollingen to see how, exactly, it caught my eye. And what we discover is that Bollingen was a philanthropic enterprise, essentially an academic press without the university. It was founded in 1945 by Paul Mellon, heir to the Andrew W. Mellon fortune, as a tribute to his late wife, a devotee of Carl Jung, and while it initially focused on Jungian studies—it was named after Jung’s famous tower and country home in Switzerland—it gradually expanded into a grander project centered on the interconnectedness and relevance of art, history, literature, and psychology. As names like Gombrich and Clark indicate, it arose out of much the same circle as the Warburg Institute in London, which was recently the subject of a loving profile by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, but with far greater resources, patronage, and financial support.

The Nude by Kenneth Clark

In the end, after publishing hundreds of books, sponsoring lectures, and awarding generous stipends to the likes of Marianne Moore and Alexis Leger, the foundation discontinued operations in 1968, noting that the generation it had served was yielding to another set of concerns. And while it may not seem to have much relevance to the problem of media brands today, it offers some surprising lessons. Bollingen started as an act of philanthropy, without any expectation of profit, and arose out of a highly focused, idiosyncratic vision: these were simply books that Mellon and his editors wanted to see, and they trusted that they would find an appreciative audience over time. Which, in many respects, is still how meaningful brands are created or sustained. Matthew Yglesias once referred to Amazon as “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers,” and although he was being facetious, he had a point. It’s easy to make fun of startup companies that are obsessed with eyeballs, rather than sustainable profits, as venture capitalist Chris Sacca put it on Alex Blumberg’s Startup podcast:

That’s usually a bad move for an early-stage company—to get cash-flow positive. I have strong opinions about that. Everyone I know who pushes for cash-flow positivity that early stops growing at the rate they should be growing, and gets so anchored by this idea that “we need to keep making money.”

Sacca concludes that you don’t want a “lifestyle business”—that is, a business growing at a pace where you get to take vacations—and that growth for its own sake should be pursued at all costs. And it’s a philosophy that has resulted, infamously, in countless “hot” tech companies that are years, if not a lifetime, away from profitability.

But I think Sacca is half right, and despite the obvious disparity in ideals, he all but circles back around to the impulse behind Bollingen. Venture investors don’t have any desire to run a charitable enterprise, but they end up doing so anyway, at least for the years in which a company is growing, because that’s how brands are made. Someone’s money has to be sacrificed to lay the foundations for anything lasting, both because of the timelines involved and because it’s the only way to avoid the kind of premature compromise that can turn off potential users or readers. We’re living in an age when such investments are more likely to take the form of startup capital than charitable largess, but the principle is fundamentally the same. It’s the kind of approach that can’t survive a short-term obsession with advertisers or page views, and it requires patrons with deep pockets, a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, an eye for quality, and a modicum of patience. (In journalism, the result might look a lot like The Distance, a publication in whose success I have a considerable personal stake.) More realistically, it may take the form of a prestigious but money-losing division within a larger company, like Buzzfeed’s investigative pieces or most of the major movie studios. The reward, as Yglesias puts it, is a claim on “a mighty engine of consumer surplus”—and if we replace “consumer” with “cultural,” we get something very much like the Bollingen Foundation. Bollingen wasn’t interested in growth in itself, but in influencing the entire culture, and in at least one book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it went viral to an extent that makes even the most widely shared article seem lame. Like Jung’s tower, it was made for its own sake. And its legacy still endures.

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