Paperback avant-garde: The Electric Information Age Book

In the late 1960s, paperback books became vehicles for graphic experimentation, as a new survey of the time reveals

Let’s throw caution to the wind. Let’s be McLuhan-esque about it and jump into the flow. If you are serious about the possibilities of graphic design – where it has come from, where it could go – then you should read The Electric Information Age Book. This sparky, scattershot and original study revisits a moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the cheap, disposable paperback became a juiced-up conductor for the experimental energies of a turbulent epoch of change.

The book’s starting point is The Medium Is the Massage, created in 1967 by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, with a book packager named Jerome Agel in the role of ‘co-ordinator’. Harvard academic Jeffrey T Schnapp – co-author with Adam Michaels from Project Projects in New York – devotes much of the main text to exploring how and why Massage, rejected by 17 publishers before Bantam Books took it, remains the supernova of this genre. Agel’s brainwave was to make the Canadian media theorist’s alternately ponderous and aphoristic insights in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) available to a wide audience, and it worked – Massage became a huge hit, selling half a million copies.

Fiore’s design is magnetically visual and the text is often compressed to only a phrase or caption on a spread. The book famously opens with a sequence of pages that address “you, your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your job, your government….” Fiore matches each statement with a full-page picture on the right, repeating the previous image as a thumbnail on the left. Massage feels cleanly sculpted; everything is considered and honed, but it’s also engagingly immersive, an experience closer to watching TV, or browsing the ads, than it is to reading a traditional linear book. As a pop artefact that zings with the mood of its era, Massage is still compelling. It also throws down a challenge to writers, designers and publishers: why aren’t there more books like this? Especially at a time when it’s often argued that the printed book needs to excite and astound, if it’s to stand any chance of competing with digital media in the long run.

Fiore, a widely experienced, self-taught designer, worked on three more projects for Agel: War and Peace in the Global Village (again Fiore took a co-author credit with McLuhan), I Seem to Be a Verb, a Massage-like attempt to set out the essential ideas of Buckminster Fuller, and Do It!, a polemical memoir by 1960s radical Jerry Rubin. Do It! is the most conventional in structure and layout, while Verb is a phenomenally intricate, non-linear, scrapbook montage, amazing to look at but arduous to read. A continuous line of text winds its way from spread to spread, then loops back on itself at the end, requiring that the book be turned upside down to read the lower half of the page printed in green. That year – 1970 – was an intensive one for Agel, a tirelessly ingenious promoter. His book, The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, also appeared, another densely loaded document of the era that’s worth tracking down if you admire Kubrick, though Fiore wasn’t involved.

The Electric Information Age Book – the third title in the Inventory Books series that Michaels edits and designs – is the same size as the paperbacks it documents and this has advantages and disadvantages. The portability and ease of handling serves Schnapp’s highly readable text very well, though the experience is slightly marred by a stiff cover and an unyielding spine. The book must be cracked open with some determination, giving it a permanently curved binding.

In his page design, Michaels emulates the books under discussion. He highlights key phrases in bold blue and pulls out words for greater emphasis. There are visual games and Fiore-inspired references and repetitions. These aren’t essential, given the interest of the subject and writing, but they add to the book’s energy and fun. An attempt to superimpose Schnapp’s explanations on to the opening pages of Massage seems to have gone awry in the printing; the miniature pages beneath the type in the blue panels are so faint that they barely register even if you already know the book.

Some of the illustrations are full-size reproductions of the original books’ pages. Many examples, though, are tiny thumbnails and, while it’s refreshing to see long, intensively researched text in a design book, the cramped format does miss the chance to display these titles clearly. This is especially the case with the even less familiar paperbacks influenced by Agel and Fiore that Michaels shows in the case studies section – most can now only be obtained secondhand from the US. These titles include Rock and Other Four Letter Words, photographed by Linda Eastman (later McCartney); US: The Paperback Magazine; Right On! A Documentary on Student Protest; and the weirdly titled 78-187880 by Ira Einhorn, which appears to be – I’m squinting at miniscule pages – some kind of psychedelic poem-rant with apocalyptic photos. Einhorn was later convicted of murdering his girlfriend.

Even at their most suspect – and the element of hucksterism in Agel’s enterprise can’t be denied – these books of the electric information age reflect their time. For me, they are fascinating enough in their own right as social, cultural and design history and I doubt the printed book can be saved now by frantic highlighting and fragmentary texts. Michaels phrases his hopes more gently, suggesting that these examples might suggest ways to achieve a “progressive approach to book production”. In his afterword, Andrew Blauvelt also moves the discussion from authorship of content through design to designers’ control of the tools of production.

That’s a significant contemporary concern (Risograph, Lulu and so on) but it’s a different issue. The McLuhan, Fuller and Kubrick books were mass-produced commodities in which their conceptualisers succeeded in forging, for a heady interlude, new forms of collaboration and editorial control. Schnapp has it right when he notes that the books represented an “avant-garde mass culture”, a merger of high and low, professor and book producer, in the 1960s market place. For that to happen now on the printed page, academics would need to embrace the visual realm, the enlightenment of the public and the possibilities of design.

The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback is by Jeffrey T Schnapp and Adam Michaels and features contributions from design critic Steven Heller and the Walker Art Center’s curator of architecture and design, Andrew Blauvelt. Published by Princeton Architectural Press; £12.99.

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