Book people are a funny bunch (and I count myself among them). I spend a good bit of time thinking about books, publishing and designing books, teaching from books, and sometimes even writing books.
There is nothing more fun than someone pointing me in the direction of a cool new book or an overlooked old one. Well designed books like those published by MIT Press genuinely excite me and make the reading experience more pleasurable and increase my willingness to be immersed in a book. I still think about the brilliant design of Manuel Herz (ed), From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of Western Sahara (Lars Müller 2013), for example, or the clever layout of Kate Eichorn’s Adjusted Margins (MIT 2016). My interest in the art and design sensibilities of producing an attractive and engaging page is one of the main reasons that I continue to work in the PDF format at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.
Every year at Christmas, my wife gets me a copy of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Published every year since 1864, the Wisden is by an measure a quirky book. First, it runs to over 1500 onion-skin pages pages, which include articles on major matches and figures in the sport, descriptions of the various tours and domestic leagues, and their longstanding tradition of naming several Cricketers of the Year.
They also include the boxscores for all the international matches of the previous year and all the first-class English domestic matches.
In other words, they include data, but not just data on each match, historical data as well both for each country and for various tournaments or series. For example, below is the list of record partnerships in the England-Australia test series colloquially known as the Ashes.
Of course, since the book is published in the spring, before the Northern hemisphere’s cricket season, and I receive mine in the winter, amid the Southern hemisphere’s cricketing season, the statistics are usually already out of date. Moreover, it’s easier albeit less fun to get up-to-date cricket stats from, say, ESPN’s Cricinfo, although these statistics tend to be a little less granular than those in the Wisden (and Wisden now makes their own database available online). On the other hand, it is usually far more convenient to use an online database than it is to flip through Wisden.
Every other year, I get a copy of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Like the Wisden, the Whisky Bible is idiosyncratic and quirky book. It consists of renown whisky critic, Jim Murray’s rankings of thousands of whiskies from around the world. Each review, which rarely runs to more than 100 words, reads like a little prose poem in its elegant description of the scent, taste, and effect of each whisky.
Murray and I don’t always agree on the rating, but his little reviews are a joy to read and while they often coincide with my impressions, they also have helped me describe the complex flavors of various whiskies in different ways. The creepy cover is just an added bonus.
They layout of the book is complicated, of course, with myriad categories representing the place of distillation, the type of whisky, and the age and bottling, and the name of the distiller. Like the Wisden, basic information of whiskies and reviews are just as easily found online. Moreover, the book itself is densely printed with little room for margin notes or other annotations.
The quirkiness of both Wisden and the Whisky Bible represent part of their charm. These books are not useful in a conventional sense. They do contain information and a certain basic functionality, but in practice, they are more counter-design studies that anachronistically evoke an era where books were the best source of complex data sets. There is something palpably cool about that.