THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL: elegant paperbacks, the quality kind, with front and back flaps, not quite pocket-sized but easily transportable, each coming in at under 200 pages, each inspired by an object and titled in lower case like so: phone booth; waste; refrigerator; hotel; glass; silence; dust; driver’s license; golf ball; remote control. Billed as books about “the hidden lives of ordinary things,” there are 10 so far, and every one a curiosity; not just an object, but a world in and of itself. We asked the editors to tell us more about the conception and ongoing life of Object Lessons.
How and why did you come up with the series?
We like stuff. Airports and rubber bands and fishing flies and magnolia trees and TaB cola and pressure washers, for example. There are so many things in the world, and so many are amazing and preposterous, and yet we say next to nothing about them. We saw an opening for pithy, smart writing about objects of all scales.
Like the best projects, Object Lessons wasn’t born from elaborate, long-term planning, but emerged by accident over the course of a few fun conversations and then quickly gained momentum.
Here’s the longer story. Chris did a PhD with the environmental philosopher Tim Morton at UC Davis, and then moved to Loyola University New Orleans. Ian became acquainted with Chris via Tim, who introduced us thanks to a mutual obsession with airports. Chris published a book with Continuum on airports (they are objects, remember), which Ian happened to endorse, and one thing led to another. Chris had been hatching the idea of a book series modeled after Continuum’s (now Bloomsbury’s) 33⅓ series, but for things instead of records. Ian had been keen on extending the purview of technology coverage at The Atlantic, where he is a contributing editor. After a retrospectively rapid series of discussions with Haaris Naqvi at Bloomsbury and Alexis Madrigal and J.J. Gould at The Atlantic in the spring of 2013, we got going and started signing books and publishing the essays by summer of that year. We must have been onto something, because we were immediately flooded with pitches and inquiries.
Object Lessons makes several interventions: it promotes a certain kind of thinking (related to current trends in contemporary philosophy like speculative realism and especially object-oriented ontology), of writing, and of publishing. Is that fair to say? And were you aware of all that when you began?
It is — and we were. (For those who don’t know the terms, they name recent trends in philosophy that seek to decenter human existence from its privileged status in metaphysics, and to allow objects of all sorts relevance and import.) But, we didn’t want to just create another academic series that was bootstrapped to a theory or fixated on certain keywords. In 2012, Ian published Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to Be a Thing (here’s the LARB review) — which, for Chris, was an early inspiration for the series (before we started collaborating on its broader possibilities). One of the ideas in Alien Phenomenology was a “pragmatic speculative realism,” one that would take metaphysics as its starting point, but use it to address actual, specific things — toasters, rebar, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, yarn skeins, apricots, whatever — as interlocutors worthy of sustained attention.
Anyway, that was just an inspiration. You don’t need to do metaphysics to read or write Object Lessons. From the outset, we wanted Object Lessons to be a series that would appeal to a wide range of writers, at different stages of their careers and from different disciplines and professions. At the same time, we wanted to offer authors of all stripes (both working writers and academics) fresh ways to write — both in online formats as well as in print.
Publishing is in a state of manic depression these days, it’s never been better and it’s never been worse. Consolidation and upheaval have created more conservatism, with more books vying for hit status in trade publishing — or else languishing unread in academic publishing. That leaves an enormous empty space in-between big money trade nonfiction and academic esoterica, which is ripe for the picking among publishers who are willing to wade through those particular swamps for treasure.
Online, things are equally complicated in different ways. Personal blogging is basically dead, for better or worse, and enormous swaths of traffic come from closed networks, mostly Facebook and now, perhaps, Apple News. So there’s good reason to build allies among publishers with longevity (The Atlantic has been around since 1857, after all), those who are thinking clearly about the current state of publishing and how to weather it. But even with enormous volumes of hot takes and think pieces and all the rest flooding the interwebs, there’s still lots of unexplored editorial territory. So many things are still not being said.
We already mentioned the desire to expand “technology writing,” but it’s worth coming back to in greater detail. Today, we use this word “technology” as a synonym for new innovations in industry — computers, mobile devices, and the internet, of course, and also energy consumption and resource management, logistics and transport, and so forth. But, we could also understand technology as a much broader category, one that includes almost anything that is made by someone (or something), or that makes something else in turn. In addition to new marvels, technology also encompasses much more mundane things. Some of the most influential and widespread technologies go unnoticed and undiscussed. So, that was another inspiration behind the series, to take the energy and interest circling around “technology” and direct it away from just Silicon Valley or outer space or neuroscience or whatever, and back onto things like golf balls and mechanical pencils and Mason jars and glass — all objects that have appeared in the series!
How do you choose the objects? (Or do you?) And how do you find your authors? (Maybe they choose? That is, what comes first — the writer or the egg?)
The objects — and their authors — sort of choose us. That is, we get pitches — hundreds of pitches — on all sorts of topics, and we discuss each pitch and see which ones grab us.
Give us an example of the sort of object you’ve rejected out of hand — or maybe argued over.
I don’t think we’ve ever rejected a pitch out of hand. We read and discuss each of them, weigh their merits, and make a decision. Actually, it’s less the object than the approach that might turn us off. We’re looking for a hook, a story, a compelling point of entry. A “lesson” — to use our own word — but not necessarily a grand or universal one.
In some cases, authors come to us with an already-complete project that’s just not a match. Maybe it’s too long or deploys an esoteric method. In some cases there’s just not a whole book’s worth in the pitch, and in that case we might look at it for an essay instead. In some cases the writing isn’t good enough — Object Lessons need to be well written. Sometimes we can tell that the author’s heart isn’t in it, and they’d rather work on something else. Other times the object itself is great but the angle just doesn’t work. We’ve probably received a dozen pitches on book, notebook, or ebook, and so far none of them have been quite right. That’s also an example of a subject that feels a bit on-the-nose. Perhaps someday, but not in the first couple dozen titles.
Sometimes one of us falls in love with the topic and has to be talked down from the actual pitch. Anything involving airports or air travel is catnip to Chris, for example.
The phrase “object lesson” usually refers to a practical example of an abstract concept. We’re contorting it in our re-use, of course, but the pragmatism remains, even if it also meant to be cut by a substantial dose of literary style. The pitches that don’t work tend not to be sufficiently incisive. They don’t get to the heart of the object in question. Which usually means that the author is not yet taking that object seriously enough. There’s a no-man’s-land between casual interest and deep, bonkers commitment. You’ve really had to trudge through that swamp to get to the point where you’re ready to write about ordinary things.
Sometimes there are objects that in retrospect we should have solicited explicitly — drone is an obvious one — but we didn’t have to: Adam Rothstein pitched a book on drones to us and we were like, “of course!” And then there are examples such as Alison Kinney, who wrote a great essay for us on Vicks VapoRub; we liked the essay so much that we asked her to propose a book for the series, and she came back with a proposal about an unexpected but perfectly timely and charged object: hoods. Then there are times when we do pursue an author, and they surprise us with what object they choose to write about. We told William Germano about the project and suggested in passing that he write a book for the series, and he came back to us six months later with an absolutely wacky and titillating book idea about eye charts. (Turned out he’d been researching eye charts for years, but what he wanted to write was too long for an essay, and too quirky for a monograph; enter Object Lessons!)
We’ve discovered that writers have all sorts of curious pet interests and areas of informal expertise — or just really good questions! — from which they can concoct an idea for a short book constrained by a single thing. Just this morning, Chris’s five-year-old son Julien came up to him holding a cheese grater, and suggested that we do a book on kitchen utensils, using the grater for the cover image. It’s this sort of thinking — focused and yet across scales and spaces — that produces ideas for our series.
Interesting, though, that the five-year-old instinctively rules out the idea of a whole book on a cheese grater alone. Isn’t "Kitchen Objects" too big a category? Couldn’t it support a series of its own?
Yes! It’s fractal. There could be a book called kitchen, or one called cheese grater … or there could be parmesan or curd — in fact we’d be happy to have all these books in the series. It just shows you how different a subject one object might be from another, given the size and shape of the object.
As for Chris’s son, well, he’s way ahead of most of us. Whether or not there’s a book-worth on a cheese grater is a productive question — maybe it’s a challenge for your readers. It’s also why we’ve got the essay part of the series. You know, for cheese graters. And now we even have Mini-Object Lessons in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, for even smaller takes, under 400 words or so.
Some of the objects you publish on are going out of date, fast (the telephone booth). Some seem pretty eternal (the fridge, the golf ball). Others may tend more toward the future (the drone, waste). Is this project part museum, part archeology of the present, part science fiction studies?
That’s a pretty good way to describe the series, yes: part museum, part archeology of the present, part sci-fi studies. We might steal that! We might also add that in each part there’s a healthy helping of wonder to spur the book along. It’s not that Object Lessons can’t be critical or skeptical, but rather that we’re not trying to be a modern Andy Rooney, sneering at doorknobs (we have a doorknob book coming, by the way). There are already so many venues for trenchant critique and skepticism, and also so many venues for facile credulity and naivety. Isn’t there room for simple curiosity and wonder?
There is, yes. But that brings up an interesting question about voice and style. How much does it differ from book to book?
Quite a bit! And with each new book we publish, the spectrum gets wider, or the constellation gets more elaborate, if you will. (Sometimes the two of us argue over style. That’s less common now than it was at the start.) The books look similar — they go together, as a set — but don’t mistake that similarity of outward appearance for a similarity of voices, styles, even genres. Hopefully Object Lessons can offer a bit of the familiar and a bit of the unfamiliar. Familiar in their invitation to stop briefly and ponder an ordinary thing that otherwise goes ponderless. But then when you crack the cover, each time a different little universe unfurls inside.
We haven’t yet received a pitch that’s 100 percent fiction; we’d like to publish such a book (or books) eventually. Nor have we yet received a purely journalistic take, an extended long-form article bolstered into a whole (short) book. That would also be something we’d welcome in the series. The one format we have chosen to avoid is the edited collection, and we’ve had to turn down just a couple such pitches. There are lots of things we could say about the edited collection, but instead we’ll just affirm that they’re not for us, not for Object Lessons anyway.
Are you aware of Defunct or The Burning House — is this really a new trend — this way of fixing on things?
Yes, these are terrific projects that are definitely setting up tents in the same campground as Object Lessons. That campground sits in an ancient wilderness. The trend of fixing on things isn’t new at all, but it seems to bubble up from time to time, suggesting a saturation point of some sort. One goal we’ve had with Object Lessons is to make something that would productively blur boundaries between academic and trade publishing — how to get the best out of both while doing something altogether different. The differences come in the physical constraints of the books (25,000 words or so), as well as our open mindedness as to what counts as a “thing.” People sometimes try to challenge us to see if they can name something that isn’t really a “thing,” but, nope, it’s things all the way down.
Now explain to us how you might tell the story of that thing, and you might have an Object Lessons book to write … Or if not, maybe an essay… Or if not, maybe a mini-essay. Or … there’s more yet to come, stay tuned.
Wait, wait — I’m thinking of John Biguenet’s book: Silence. If you please, for the general reader, defend Silence as a thing.
Silence is something we can encounter, something that can be used, bought, sold, something that can be craved, something that can be terrifying, something that can be elusive or overpowering. We know it when we hear it, or when we want to hear it. Right? It’s a thing!
Let’s take things even further. Does something exist? Great, then it’s an object and you can write an object lesson about it. Here, quick metaphysics break: anything that exists exists the same as anything else that exists. It doesn’t have the same relevance or power or importance, necessarily, but such matters are also a matter of perspective anyway. All that is, is. And for us, all that is is an “object.” If you don’t want to call it an “object” or a “thing,” that’s fine, we’re cool. Everything’s still welcome.
That said, we also want to balance the series and cover a variety of types of objects. Waste is a big object distributed in space and time — what Tim Morton, who is also one of our advisory board members, calls a hyperobject. Silence is an object we can’t see or hold but whose effects we can trace. Phone booth is an object that has essentially disappeared. Driver’s license is one that just about all of us possess on our person at this very moment.
What do you make of the trend to publish little books? Object Lessons are published with Bloomsbury, but several university presses have also been putting out short little treatises, often of the more philosophical kind: Stanford has the Stanford Briefs, Minnesota has the Forerunners series of essay-books. Is this part of a move toward the digital? Are you attached to the paper book-object of the Object Lessons series? Would it be okay with you if the books went straight to digital? Would it diminish their object character?
Some of the projects you mention (and that we mentioned earlier on) were around before Object Lessons (Continuum/Bloomsbury’s 33⅓ series, Reaktion’s Animal series, Stanford Briefs, Palgrave Pivot), and others have cropped up since we launched (Lightning Guides, Minnesota’s concise Forerunners, MIT’s excerpted BITS), not to mention Amazon Kindle Singles, Ploughshares Solos, and self-published, short ebooks on Gumroad and elsewhere. For sure, the short book is hot.
All of these examples speak to publishers working to find hybrid modes of publishing in the new media ecology. Object Lessons has always had a foot in the digital and a foot in print publishing: we have our active Twitter bot, our site with auto-generated lists of things, and of course essays in The Atlantic that run parallel to the book series; but we’ve also put a lot of time and energy into the design of the book-objects.
Bloomsbury has not cut any corners on this front, which is partly why we love working with them. These are not print-on-demand pamphlets. They’re offset-print, with French flaps, in a trim size made for portability, spot-color printed to reproduce the specific vision of our amazing cover designer Alice Marwick, and made to look great together or on their own. Bloomsbury hired a publicist, Kathy Daneman, who immediately understood the potential of the series, and has done an incredible job getting advance copies of our books into the right hands. We have a talented professional indexer, Susan Clements, who works on every book for consistency. How many of these short-books do you know of that have indexes? Exactly. So, we’re deeply committed to the craft of bookmaking and the object of an Object Lessons.
The series is an ongoing commitment to the object of the book — we want to make books that are beautiful objects in the world, for our authors as well as for our readers. So, no, we are not interested in straight-to-digital books for Object Lessons. Of course, we give that option (you can buy every Object Lessons book as an ebook). But we hope that most of our readers appreciate the objects of Object Lessons, these little books that act as portals into the things that surround us.
In fact, every time one of our readers sees an Object Lessons print book for the first time, they tend to fall in love. That’s no accident and it’s crucial for the series (it’s what makes many authors want to pitch a book for the series). Just recently, we all learned that ebook sales actually have been declining this year, and many readers are returning to print or reading in both formats. We can’t prove it exactly, but we suspect that making books themselves more desirable as objects is one of the most important elements in culturing the future of print. Which isn’t going anywhere, for the record.
And actually, all of this — short, small, print books — doesn’t represent a new trend but a return to an earlier one. Back in the 18th century, books were much shorter and much smaller physically. Clive Thompson wrote an extensive explanation of this history last year, but the short version is that books were commonly about 6 x 9 (octavo), and often under 10,000 words long. That’s because books could be as long as the argument needed to be; we didn’t strive to fill 300 pages just to justify a $25 list price, and thereby to staple a bunch of unnecessary b-roll to a perfectly good 8,000 word magazine article.
There’s another reason why the print book is important to Object Lessons, even if we haven’t fully realized it yet. Some readers are in it for the long haul. They’re going to buy many or most (or all?) these books and follow us on Facebook and Twitter and read the essays and think of themselves as thing people. But in other cases, one book is enough. Maybe your father-in-law plays golf; get him Harry Brown’s golf ball instead of a tie for Father’s Day. Maybe you’re interested in drones but not, you know, foaming at the mouth for drone disruption: pick up Adam Rothstein’s drone. Maybe you’ve just remodeled a kitchen and you’re in the mood to think more about the objects therein that otherwise disappears into the background: Jonathan Rees’s refrigerator is for you. Going on a vacation or traveling for business? You cannot go wrong taking Joanna Walsh’s hotel along with you.
We say we haven’t fully realized this aspect of the series yet because one of our goals is to get these books into the right place at the right time. That’s very difficult and quite complicated, and we’re working closely with Bloomsbury to crack the nut. It leads to a provocative conclusion that most writers probably don’t want to think about, but should: much of the innovation in writing and publishing today is a function of sales and marketing, not of ideas and editorial.
I love Walsh’s book, hotel, probably because it’s so personal. How many of the books veer in that direction? And how much editing do you actually do? Do you find yourself asking your writers for more or less research? Less or more of their own experience?
Right now probably a third of the books veer in this direction (i.e., personal) … but we don’t have a set sense of what percentage of the books should be this or that style. Some of the essays have taken this form too: Suzanne Nguyen’s meditation on placentas, for instance, or Leigh Alexander’s on the Domino’s pizza.
We really are open to a wide variety of approaches. (We even want to do a children’s book in the series someday!) And each calls for its own editorial shaping — some very minimal, some line editing, some more architectural, framing, and so on. As editors, our job is to make selections, but not for the sake of our own taste and preferences. We’re trying to build a community, a neighborhood, a city around this project, and to do that we need variety.
One way we’ve tried to accomplish that is by making the “seasons” of releases include a variety of types and styles. Refrigerator is (lively) industrial history, while Hotel is a twisting, personal narrative. Dust is philosophical, whereas waste is hard to categorize (in a good way!). We definitely want to avoid any sense that there’s a formula or a model. Every object lesson should be its own. It’s a thrill to see what approach each writer takes, when the manuscripts come in. Joanna Walsh notes in a post for the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog that she was able to stretch out and write Hotel in a way that felt just right to her, and we didn’t get in her way — quite the contrary, we encourage such stretching out into a sincere comportment in these books. But that doesn’t mean all the books have to be experimental or hybrid in form or whatever. They can also just be sure-footed, lithe cultural inquiries — like John Garrison’s Glass. Another example: Scott Shershow’s forthcoming Bread launches from something like memoir into a jaunty history of baking; but some readers may also notice Shershow kneading dough of thought as he tries to reconcile or square deconstruction with object-oriented ontology. Although no reader needs to worry about “getting” that part of the book — it’s just happening in Scott’s good, clear writing. Bread exemplifies whatever is worth preserving in what we still clumsily call “critical theory” — not as myopic academic posturing or overwrought semantic dithering, but as earnest inquiry into the world, the real world, where thoughts and sourdough jostle one another.
Back to product placement for a minute. This idea that you want the books to be available to particular readers in particular venues. You realize you’re beginning to sound like ad-men. Have you closed any deals to have, say, hotel, available at every Marriott in the world? To what extent is the series promoting a commodity culture at the time when the commodity has gone out of fashion? Is all this talk about "things" commodity culture’s last, desperate gasp for relevance in the digital age? Do books need to attach themselves to this commodity culture to survive? How do you see the politics of this attachment? Is that what you’re promoting? Or is it something else you have in mind?
Marriott’s probably not the right match, but, yes, we’ve talked about getting hotel into the rooms of the right hotels. And golf ball into pro shops. And bread into bakeries. And driver’s license into DMVs! (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Why are we interested in these things? Because we’d like to sell enough books that we can keep making more, and because we’d like our authors to make enough royalties writing books that they can write more. And because we’d like to reach new readers who might think to find us at a venue like this. So, feel free to call us ad-men. Hey potential Object Lessons authors: we intend to sell your books to readers! Hey potential Object Lessons readers: we think you might actually like our books, and we’d like your purchases to support our authors!
We cannot really fathom why this would be insulting or wicked, but let’s talk about it anyway. Some of our authors are academics, and academics sometimes like to shun the very idea of commerce as if they are somehow above it all. Meanwhile, their salaries, the fodder of $50k/year tuitions and multi-billion dollar endowments (and even, occasionally, allocations of state funds!) still get direct-deposited. They can enjoy the luxury of not having to think about commercial viability, and often they do so to a fault, purposely avoiding any kind of commercialization and thereby condemning themselves to obscurity, which they then celebrate as victory. Let’s be clear: there’s no shame in working in a narrow-but-important domain and reaching a small-but-specialized audience. There’s also no shame in wanting to speak to a more general public.
We don’t believe the dire warnings that the “humanities are in crisis.” But we do believe that humanists — and here we don’t just mean academics in the humanities, but renaissance and secular humanists more generally — can and should do a better job speaking to a wider audience. The average bestselling book — a real bestseller, not one of these that cracks the bottom of an esoteric sub-list for a week — those are bought by people who might read one or two books a year. We’re not expecting that kind of reach for Object Lessons (we’d also not turn it down), but surely there’s enough space between scholarly books that sell 300 copies and bestsellers that sell three million for some kind of compromise on audience. And addressing that audience means reaching them, and reaching that audience means engaging with the marketplace. You know, even Verso — that great bastion of radical leftist publishing — sells books, hmmm? The explicit point of Verso is to sell books!
Besides that, Object Lessons is not an academic series in any strict sense. It supports and welcomes scholarly authors and readers, but it’s not only for them. It’s for all of us. Many of our authors are working writers. That means they get paid to write. For a living. We’d like to pay them to write. We thought academic leftists were interested in labor, no? If paying writers is some kind of an affront then maybe it’s academics who have the problem.
As far as “commodity culture” is concerned, we’re not worried. In fact, the deliberate confusion of “object” for “commodity” is a category error, and it’s not even a Marxist one. The real capitalist ideologue is the one who insists that everything can be reduced to capital! Where objects are just commodities! Where every book is really titled capital rather than golf ball or phone booth or refrigerator. What a pity for refrigeration and sport and silence and love and lassitude! And where objects are mere tools for human use, and human exchange, too! Isn’t the whole point of the critique of capitalism to help wrest things from such clutches?
It’s funny, actually, because one reader wrote to us out of the blue and told us the series was “exciting and fruitful and a great gift to eager readers.” A gift! That’s the spirit. These books are hardly celebrations of the final victory of capitalism. To be frank, we’re more worried about being ruinously associated with smarmy academicism than we are in evaporating into the hypothetical, anonymous fog of “commodity culture.”
If you want to find politics in our books and essays, then just open any book or read any essay. You’ll not be disappointed. But we’re not going to pander to the old-fashioned academic leftist isolationist’s demand that all discourse always furrow its brow and wag its finger, as if sitting pretty in tweed and writing incoherently about Deleuze or Rancière is somehow more politically engaged an act than trying to help the everyperson understand how the television remote structured domestic life or how everything we touch eventually becomes waste. Tim Morton recently tweeted an apropos joke: “When I say ‘table,’ what I really mean is ‘global capital.’” This is a sickness, and it’s time to end it. Instead: here comes everything.
Dinah Lenney is the nonfiction editor at LARB, the co-editor of Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (just published by W. W. Norton), and the author of The Object Parade.
Arne De Boever teaches American Studies in the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts.