12. Adventures with books
I’ve just finished Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. All I knew about the book came from Mary Carr’s The Art of Memoir, where Carr quotes a delightful sentence comparing the heft of Tolstoy books to a beluga whale, and includes the book in her list of must-read memoirs. I had been expecting something of a survey of the Russian canon, like George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, or maybe a main plot of the books and a bit of authorial experience woven in, as Sarah Bakewell did in the excellent At the Existentialist Cafe. It wasn’t like that at all.
I’d missed a key clue in the title… “and the people that read them”. Reader, this book is not just about Chekov and Tolstoy, but Chekov and Tolstoy academics. Batuman chronicles a summer of research in Uzbekistan (including the hijinks of higher education grant schemes), conferences going off the rails, and colourful and charismatic colleagues (including a Serbian student who seems somewhere between Byron and Christopher McCandless). More than anything, how people devoted to the beauty of literature (as Batuman self-identifies at the end of the book) have decidedly unbeautiful, messy lives. This is not the detached academic voice. Batuman even includes dream: her dreams, her boyfriends’ dreams (admittedly whilst sweating out food poisoning from an Uzbek stew) and even her colleagues’ dreams. But maybe that’s the way with Russian literature, to truly understand them requires a leap of faith as a person as well as a scholar.
This month in digital government and design
- It’s been nearly 9 months since I joined the Government Digital Services. Aside from getting a GOV.UK 9th birthday sticker, mug, and pin, I also contributed to a blog about moving from private to public sector as a designer. (I also have other examples for the future).
- GDS is a GSuite org (for now), so this plugin for converting docs to markdown (for github etc) is useful.
- as public sector designers are now close to 2 years of working in a pandemic, Sarah Drummond pens a love letter to their work.
- Back in 2017, Andrea Cooper (then Siodmok) released a ‘styles of action’ chart for policy makers. She’s released one for charities and the public sector.
- speaking of continued work, for the last few years Jason Mesut has been developing a model for shaping designers. This is a good recap of his work to date.
- And for tools that are a bit more physical, try these crafty tools for organisational policy development.
- Disability activist Liz Jackson points to the lack of continued support for the Microsoft Surface Adaptive Kit as the risk of disability being used as a corporate announcement and then dropped (and has a hashtag #ResistTheAnnouncement).
- Muryani Kasdani talks about service prototypes, staff change fatigue and the change management that therefore has to happen.
- The Critical Design Alphabet is a living work, but an intriguing start.
- And for a bit more fun, the WCAG pronunciation alignment chart. (I’m neutral, though did fumble when running some training as I had a mind blank as to the meaning of the acronym!)
RIP Joan Didion and bell hooks, who both passed away this month. I enjoyed Didion’s piece on Woody Allen films (though squirmed because I love Annie Hall) and Min Jin Lee’s 2019 piece on bell hooks.
This has been the year of the book blob cover.
Book blurb decoder. It scans.
And my new favourite word ‘book-wrapt’. (Though as a rentee, I look at my growing collection of physical books with the dread of one day having to box them all up to move house).
This is the winter of rapid test results. xkcd has some interpretations for you.
And finally, a singalong for the pet owners who celebrate Christmas
Safe times to all and see you all in 2022!