The Electric Information Age Book

A condensed history of an innovative moment in publishing history revives the visionary potentials within the humble paperback format. Domus speaks to authors Jeffrey Schnapp and Adam Michaels.

The Electronic Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback , by Jeffrey Schnapp and Adam Michaels, Princeton Architectural Press, 2012, Paperback, 240 pages, $22.95

During the intense cultural ferment of the 1960s, a savvy and theatrical advertising guru named Jerome Agel combined previously disparate conventions and practices to transform one of the most populist publishing models of the modern era—the mass-market paperback. It was in this pulpy, constrained format that some of the most visionary thinkers of the time—Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan—found enthusiastic audiences whose emerging literacy in media and technologies was obviously affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. In addition, these books (notably McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village, and Fuller's I seem to be a Verb ) dynamically combined type, photography, and design to create a new kind of (print-based) multimedia experience that both performed and described the hypersensory realities of the age.

In the recent The Electric Information Age Book , media scholar Jeffrey Schnapp and designer/editor Adam Michaels (whose Inventory Books imprint are all in the same mass-market paperback format) revisit this relatively brief moment in publishing history (and the history of ideas), whose implications for the future of books still resound today.
During the intense cultural ferment of the 1960s, Jerome Agel combined previously disparate conventions and practices to transform one of the most populist publishing models of the modern era—the mass-market paperback
During the intense cultural ferment of the 1960s, Jerome Agel combined previously disparate conventions and practices to transform one of the most populist publishing models of the modern era—the mass-market paperback
Alan Rapp: The Electric Information Age Book details an influential convergence of ideas and actors who created a new conceptual genre of books that combined text, photography, and design. Although many people recognized the famous authors behind the books—McLuhan, Fuller, Sagan, Herman Kahn—they were also exposed to the people who were (and still are) mostly invisible in publishing, the packager (Jerome Agel) and designer (Quentin Fiore). Moreover, the Agel/Fiore projects seemed to flip the traditional publishing hierarchies; where the designer is often the work-for-hire, in these books it was the packager and designer who tapped and directed the authors. How else did Fiore and Agel transform the publishing industry of the time, and what residual effects can we still see today?

Jeffrey Schnapp: Of the two, Agel played the larger role with respect to the publishing industry, with Fiore playing the shaping role with respect to the graphic texture and composition of their collaborative book projects.

Though a journalist by training, Agel was an industry insider whose deepest ties were to the advertising culture of Madison Avenue, which he preferred to the starchy gentility of the upscale book trade. His revolt comes out into the open with the foundation in 1964 of a scrappy newsprint monthly entitled Books, The Monthly Misnomer. Promoted as "our advertising agency" by Agel Publishing (which was, indeed, an advertising agency), it sought to wed the New Yorker with Book World, but within a madcap, eclectic, cartoony mold designed to deliver the unpredictable in every issue. This experimental subscription-only venue served as the incubator and launch pad for the collaborations with Fiore. What it lacked in polish, it made up in exuberance. Fiore introduced the polish into the book projects.

Like Books itself (which ceased publishing in 1968), the conceptual genre of books that Agel and Fiore devised would ultimately fail by the mid-1970s. But together they inaugurated a fresh and irreverent televisual cut-and-paste style of communication that was influential during its era.

Its contemporary legacies are as rife in the field of advertising as in internet culture, especially in those zones within the web where high- and low-brow forms occupy each others' ground.
<i>The Electric Information Age Book</i> details an influential convergence of ideas and actors who created a new conceptual genre of books that combined text, photography, and design
The Electric Information Age Book details an influential convergence of ideas and actors who created a new conceptual genre of books that combined text, photography, and design
Adam Michaels: From my perspective as someone designing, editing, and publishing books, one of the main points that I wanted The Electronic Information Age Book to make is that the body of work produced by Jerome Agel and Quentin Fiore remains deeply exceptional; experimental techniques have rarely been employed with such generosity for wide audiences. While the Agel and Fiore production model failed to take hold of the publishing industry, I'm not sure that this was their goal; they certainly succeeded at creating an unusual and inspiring set of books—and at the time, they contributed to a more widespread consideration of the work of McLuhan, Fuller, Sagan, and more. Perhaps the main residual effects of Agel and Fiore's work can be found amongst a small number of people, such as ourselves, who remain committed to exploring the full extent of the possibilities for typographic communication both within the space of the book, as well as across other media.

Part of the genesis of the Inventory Books series was the realization that work of this sort—in which images and text, and editorial and design processes, are closely intertwined—goes against dominant logics of how the publishing industry typically produces books. So the creation of the series was a way of establishing a situation in which these working methods could be productively explored, while retaining the goal of communicating to a wide audience, in this case through Princeton Architectural Press's existing distribution network.
It was in this pulpy, constrained format that some of the most visionary thinkers of the time—Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan—found enthusiastic audiences whose emerging literacy in media and technologies was obviously affecting nearly every aspect of their lives
<em>The Electronic Information Age Book</em>, spread
The Electronic Information Age Book , spread
The mass-market paperback existed before these collaborations. Why did Fiore and Agel decide to explore this tight format—about 18 x 10 cm (7 x 4")—for such visually exuberant experiments? What else was going on in culture that Agel wanted to reference and critique in his books?

AM: As Richard Kostelanetz interjected from the audience at a recent book talk that I gave on the EIAB, it's important to mention that The Medium is the Massage was also published in a larger hardcover format, in addition to the mass-market paperback.

Richard thinks the hardcover is the superior, more serious edition (he also wrote as much in a then-contemporary review ). However, I've always been far more drawn to the paperback, primarily for its accessibility: a considerably lower price (both at the time of release, as well as for used copies), and easier portability—and thus greater potential for usage. I also love the complete surprise of opening up a cheap paperback and finding something as thoroughly unexpected as the textual and visual complexity found in Massage.
<em>The Electronic Information Age Book</em>, page detail
The Electronic Information Age Book , page detail
JS: My view concurs with that of Adam. It's shaped not only by a longstanding interest in criss-crossings between mass culture and the avant-gardes, but also by the archival evidence (which is unequivocal). The book was conceived, written and designed for a tight industrial format, so as to place it before the sort of mass market reader who was the addressee of Bantam books; not the upstream or uptown reader. The larger hardcover edition was an afterthought and a contractual concession on Agel's part to Random House, Bantam's owner. The tight format wants to open up a dialogue with the throwaway world of newsprint, with pulp fiction and pop culture, with the flicker of the ephemeral and the everyday. Agel was emphatic about this in Books: he wanted a TMZ for the literate reader: he was after big ideas as well as the social scene, the secret backstage, emerging trends, rumor, gossip, buzz.
Designer/editor Adam Michaels, co-author of <em>The Electronic Information Age Book</em>, whose Inventory Books imprint are all in the same mass-market paperback format
Designer/editor Adam Michaels, co-author of The Electronic Information Age Book , whose Inventory Books imprint are all in the same mass-market paperback format
Why were the authors who contributed to these books seemingly ideal to Agel? Other thinkers of the era who concentrated on media and technology, from the popular (Alvin Toffler) to the more technical (Norbert Wiener), didn't see their ideas explored in such cross-media manifestations. Are these accidents of history or were McLuhan, Fuller, Sagan, et al. unique in their understanding of the potential of "television age publishing models"?

JS: Agel was very much engaged with the work of Toffler and cites him frequently. Both worked in and around the Random House circle. But Toffler was a skilled journalist who was more than able to handle his own mass media packaging. Wiener was also known to Agel, omnivorous as he was in his reading interests. As you note, the technical character of much of his work on cybernetics may have made him a less promising candidate but the principal reason was doubtless that Wiener passed away a couple of years before The Medium is the Massage hit the best seller charts.

Agel's authors form a relatively cohesive set. All either traffic in aphorisms and slogans or their work is readily translatable into short forms. A susceptibility to puns or word twisting of the shameless kind is pretty much a given, with McLuhan leading the pack. And among all there's a shared conviction that it's crucial that high-level thinking break out of its disciplinary molds and spill out onto the television screen and streets.

Agel was so committed to mass-market translations of this sort that when Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power found its way onto his desk, he immediately wrote to propose his usual media massage. (I've been unable to locate a response and suspect that there was none. Imagine the brooding, brilliant, introverted Canetti playing Marshall the Media Clown in The Jerry Agel Circus!)
Adam Michaels says "my intention for the design was to provide a sense of surprise, both upon first opening the book, as well as throughout the course of a full reading"
Adam Michaels says "my intention for the design was to provide a sense of surprise, both upon first opening the book, as well as throughout the course of a full reading"
Adam, how did you conceptualize the design of this book, which is (as your other Inventory Books are) in the same mass-market paperback format that the Fiore/Agel projects were? That is, how did you approach a contemporary book about these historical books which really transformed book design in their time, while simultaneously hewing to the identical format and trim size?

AM: The mass-market paperback format has appealed to me since I was a kid, when I had a voracious reading appetite and nearly no money—I fondly recall reading everything from Stephen King to Friedrich Nietzsche in this format. For me, the appeal is simple and clear: the mass-market paperback is the least expensive and most portable of any standard book format. While the publishing industry tends to treat the mass-market paperback as obsolete, I hold the apparently anachronistic view that it remains the ideal format for serious reading. I might suggest that the ascent of the Kindle and similar devices is related to the publishing industry's neglect of the format; e-book hardware and software offer the portability and reduced prices that readers miss from their old paperbacks, albeit without the sensual qualities and specificity found in engagement with actual, individual objects (even if mass-produced ones).
<em>The Electronic Information Age Book</em>, page detail
The Electronic Information Age Book , page detail
As far as the book's design, I've been deeply inspired by books in which ordinary external characteristics are contrasted by the surprise of an extraordinary book interior—my intention for the series design was to similarly provide a sense of surprise, both upon first opening the book, as well as throughout the course of a full reading. Fiore and Agel produced this sense of particularity in Massage through a full range of design and editorial strategies—significant phrases jump out of the text block, are isolated, emphasized, repeated, rendered large, small, rotated, mirrored, and are frequently juxtaposed with a careful selection of images—which in turn are scaled, cropped, repeated, reversed, and unusually positioned. All of this is done with a carefully controlled sense of pacing, and an emphasis on clarity—so these expanded techniques are employed not simply for their own sake, but as a means of expressing concepts more clearly than neutrally typeset blocks of text could possibly do on their own.
<em>The Electronic Information Age Book</em>, spread
The Electronic Information Age Book , spread
The last few books of the Agel and Fiore collaborations (Jerry Rubin's Do It! and The Making of Kubrick's 2001) didn't match the mass appeal of the first few; you have a spread entitled "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," but the book doesn't detail how they went their separate ways. How did the duo really separate? Do you think their greatest endeavors were behind them, or could they have 'massaged' the medium further?

AM: On page 188, a 1973 letter from Agel to McLuhan is quoted, in which the former proposes a new book building upon the success of Massage; Agel writes: "Quentin will not be involved in this production. I will be the sole responsible design, production, and contract party, per my recent successes." It appears that Agel felt an increased sense of confidence following books such as Herman Kahnsciousness. Also, Agel and Fiore each had a substantial amount of other work happening at the same as their collaborations, so the separation may not have been so dramatic.
JS: Friends and family in the know have insisted that there was no real "break" inasmuch as they remained close friends. There was simply an increasing sense of distance because Fiore had moved away from New York City, thereby making it impractical for them to work side by side (as had been the case with The Medium is the Massage ).

The separation, in turn, accentuated temperamental differences. Agel continued along the same path massaging the media of the Mass Age. Fiore gradually returned to his abiding passion for traditional forms of craft, from bookmaking to artisanal paper production to the conventional luxury editions with which he concluded his career.

AM: While there is a good deal of pleasure to be found in both Agel and Fiore's separate works, their books together are stronger, and certainly more deliberate in appearance, than those created apart. While this is due to a wide range of factors (for example, the distinct advantage of working with McLuhan's words over Herman Kahn's), it does suggest that there are greater advantages to be found in collaboration than solitary work—especially in the case of Agel and Fiore, in which a skilled editor/producer, with an ear for a catchy phrase, and a sophisticated visual practitioner combined their talents to create something that they wouldn't have been able to achieve on their own.

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