It was not the best of times, world-events-wise, but books provided solace, insight, and – occasionally – distraction. Here are some books I read (or listened to) this year, and can’t stop thinking about.
It’s hyperlexia that keeps people’s eyes fixed on their phones and not on nature, art, friends, mates, children, or work. And it’s hyperlexia that leads to fatalities in driving-while-texting accidents. We have become so compulsively unwilling to stop reading (Facebook, Tinder, WhatsApp) that we will risk our lives, livelihoods, and certainly marriages to keep at it.
That assessment may come as a surprise to “the keepers of the canon of media,” as Heffernan puts it, who “are hesitant to legitimize digital reading and often blind themselves to it.” They may not even recognize the activity as reading. But even amid a deluge of pictographs (emoji) and images (Instagram), we remain constant readers:
As Michael Pollan has memorably chronicled in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, America in the age of rye surplus used to be a nation of drunks, then the overproduction of corn turned us into overeaters. I’d add that, as words have proliferated hypertrophically on the Internet, we’ve become a population of overreaders, of hyperlexics.
Heffernan didn’t coin hyperlexia; she repurposed it from the language of child psychology, where it refers to a child’s precocious ability to read, often combined with difficulties in communication. (It can be understood as the opposite of dyslexia.) According to one researcher, between 5 and 10 percent of children with autism are hyperlexic; according to another, there are three discrete types of childhood hyperlexia, including one type that comprises children who “simply learn to read very early.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos doesn’t like calling his customers “consumers”; he prefers “readers,” writes Heffernan:
As Jeff Bezos has observed, when you “consume” nonperishables like books, newspapers, electronics, and even the copy-dense megasite that is Amazon.com, you’re reading. You’re not eating, not consuming. In fact the signature pastime of the American consumer is now the mental act of processing digital, symbolic data: watching videos, graphics, maps, and images; listening to music and sound cues; and above all reading.
I could quote from Heffernan’s beautifully written, idea-rich book all day, but instead, I’ll just recommend that you add it to your own hyperlexic to-do list.
The official Trump typeface – as seen on hotels, airplanes, and campaign logo (but not on the failed steaks, wine, or university) – is Akzidenz Grotesk.
Budweiser has announced that it’s rebranding its beer “America” for the duration of the U.S. election season. It’s not the first America-first stunt the brewery has pulled, notes Mark Wilson in Fast Co Design: previous summer-only editions have featured the Statue of Liberty and the American flag. But this bit of revisionism is especially thorough: “Almost every bit of type on the Budweiser label has been scrubbed away by Easter Egg patriotism, with new text citing the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner, and America the Beautiful—all rendered in newly developed hand lettering, inspired by Budweiser’s archives.” For what it’s worth, Budweiser’s parent company, InBev, is headquartered in Belgium and Brazil.
VORP: An acronym for “value over replacement player.” Coined by baseball statistician Keith Woolner circa 2001 as a way to measure “how much a hitter contributes offensively or how much a pitcher contributes to his team in comparison to a fictitious ‘replacement player,’ who is an average fielder at his position and a below average hitter” (definition source: Wikipedia).
In the years since Woolner invented VORP, the term has been adopted by tech startups as a means of grading employees, writes Dan Lyons in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, a memoir published earlier this month. Lyons, who had been laid off at 52 from a reporting job at Newsweek, considered himself lucky to be hired as a “marketing fellow” by a 10-year-old Boston company called HubSpot, which sells “software that lets companies, most of them small businesses like pool installers and flower shops, sell more stuff.” (The company line, writes Lyons: “Our spam is not spam. In fact it is the opposite of spam. It’s antispam. It’s a shield against spam—a spam condom. HubSpot has even created a promotional campaign, with T-shirts that say make love not spam.”) Lyons had spent most of his career writing about technology, and knew nothing about marketing. Still, he needed a job and prided himself on being a quick study. Besides, as he writes in a New York Times op-ed: “I thought working at a start-up would be great. The perks! The cool offices!”
In the spring of 1955, the first Totsuko transistor radio, the size of a large pack of cigarettes, rolled off the production line in Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. It never went on sale – its grille bent and peeled off in hot weather – but it was promising enough that the Bulova Watch Company, in New York, placed an order for 100,000 of them. Bulova wanted to rebrand the radios with its own corporate name, but Akio Morita, the owner of the company that made the radio, refused. Professional pride was one reason. But another, writes Simon Winchester in Pacific* (2015), was that “just a few days prior to receiving the order, he and his colleagues had decided to rename their company, to call it Sony.”