Mission: Impossible: The Art of McSweeney’s

 “Impossible, you say?” one of the early pages asks rhetorically in Art of McSweeney’s, a study of the art of the quirky periodical McSweeney’s Quarterly. “Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus.” With David Eggers as the chief ringmaster, McSweeney’s Quarterly gathers together all creative creatures under the big top of his publishing venture in an attempt to do nothing less than save the printed book itself. To lovers of the online reading experience, Eggers et al. seem like hopeless Luddites—dinosaurs in a golden age of pixels. To lovers of the book as a work of art, the McSweeney’s cast attempts the impossible and succeeds, at least for now.

“[T]here are business people who spend their days crowing about a future where physical books are no more,” Eggers laments. “McSweeney’s is a small company dedicated to these physical books that purportedly have no future.” In a picture showing issues 1 through 29 of McSweeney’s Quarterly, you can see the exquisite corpus of twenty years of creativity. The variety not only in exteriors format but also in interiors, including modern contrivances such as CDs and DVDs, resurrects the idea of the book as something important rather than something dispensable. “This book is dedicated to readers who love physical books as objects,” Eggers enthuses, “and also to showing young publishers-to-be how much fun can be had while making books, and how available the means of production is to them.” Art of McSweeney’s proves it’s OK to make a fetish object of books while simultaneously demonstrating that creating such gems is possible given the proper passion and creativity.

Art of McSweeney’s moves chronologically through issues 1 through 31 of the quarterly, with brief interludes to discuss other publishing ventures such as William T. Vollmann’s 4,000-page leviathan on the history of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, and former Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s writings. Eggers and collaborators such as Sarah Vowell, Rick Moody, Neal Pollack, Michael Chabon, and Glen David Gold anecdotally lead you through the buildup, construction, and reception of each issue. Even mistakes such as a weighty metallic binding to hold magnetically bound mini-books that led to postage fee issues seem more fun than folly when done in the name of trying something cool.

If McSweeney’s Quarterly can be said to have a father figure, I’d nominate Marcel Duchamp. Using Duchampian “found materials” found on the side of the road of publishing history, McSweeney’s Quarterly makes everything old new again. For example, a long-forgotten “Gaelic Self-Taught” book finds new life as a short story “designed in the style of comic book without pictures.” The classic McSweeney’s look comes from old school ideas digested by post-modern sensibilities.

Discussing one piece in particular, Lawrence Weschler hits on this prevailing theme of convergences between old design and modern intent. “Convergences are simply unlikely alignments,” Weschler says of a feature placing a lunar landscape beside a two-toned Rothko and the swirl of colliding galaxies beside Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. “What I do is, I put disparate images together and say, ‘Look at this, now look at this,’ inviting the reader to enjoy the beguiling resonance.” The primary focus of McSweeney’s Quarterly will most likely always be the written word, but it’s this visual “beguiling resonance” that make you want to pick up the book and open it.

Behind the overall beguilement, however, remains serious stuff, albeit always with a naughty playfulness at some level. In 2004, issue 14 featured David Eggers’ painting of George W. Bush as an amputee saying, “I am so, so sorry.” Thus, the human cost of the war, even for survivors, comes to call for the powers responsible. Four years later, in issue 26, an American flag graced the cover beneath the title, “Where to Invade Next.” A selection of smaller flags of invadees to choose from cowered beneath the stars and stripes. “I’d been thinking of how seemingly easy it was for the Bush administration to sell the war in Iraq—even to the liberal segment of the country,” Eggers explains, “and I thought we could publish an issue that basically laid out equally compelling reasons to topple the governments of a handful of other sovereign nations.” It’s an elaborate joke, both visually and verbally, but it’s important because the joke was on us, even if we didn’t know it until Eggers pointed it out. Whenever someone dismisses McSweeney’s Quarterly as the sophomoric hi-jinks of artistically advanced yet intellectually stunted overachievers, I point to those issues as playing the role of the court jester whispering valuable truths in the king’s ear by shouting piercing jibes to the world.

If nothing else, Art of McSweeney’s will stir your imagination, even if you disagree with the politics or fail to appreciate the literature. An aroma of hipsterism lingers about McSweeney’s, often repulsing a wider public fearing the taint of elitism. Art of McSweeney’s sweeps all elitism away by giving a full disclosure of the creative process itself, from the highs to the painful lows. If you ever wanted to run away with the circus, Art of McSweeney’s is your chance, and all you need to do is sit down, open a book, and open your mind. They’ve taken a “Mission: Impossible” and made it a “Mission Accomplished.”

[Many thanks to Chronicle Books for providing me with a review copy of Art of McSweeney’s.]

Trying to spot China’s green energy tipping point

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

Elon Musk says Boring Company tunnel opens Dec. 10

The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.

Image: Getty Images/Claudia Soraya
Technology & Innovation
  • The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
  • This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
  • If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less

Tesla introduces new Model 3 at $45,000

The new version's battery has a shorter range and a price $4,000 lower than the previous starting price.

Tesla Model 3 (Photo: Tesla)
Technology & Innovation
  • Tesla's new version of the Model 3 costs $45,000 and can travel 260 miles on one charge.
  • The Model 3 is the best-selling luxury car in the U.S.
  • Tesla still has yet to introduce a fully self-driving car, even though it once offered the capability as an option to be installed at a future date.
Keep reading Show less

Cancer researcher says keto is not a fad diet

Anatomy and physiology professor David Harper claims a recent study in The Lancet is flawed.

Photo: Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • The low-carbohydrate group in a recent Lancet study were typically middle-aged, obese, sedentary, diabetic smokers.
  • The study was not a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment.
  • Harper has been in ketosis for six years, and says it has profound effects on cancer patients, among other chronic ailments.
Keep reading Show less

Are you a Boltzmann Brain? Why nothing in the Universe may be real

A mind-bending paradox questions the nature of reality.

Surprising Science
  • Boltzmann Brains are hypothetical disembodied entities with self-awareness.
  • It may be more likely for a Boltzmann Brain to come into existence than the whole Universe.
  • The idea highlights a paradox in thermodynamics.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain
  • When it comes to educating, says Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, a brave failure is preferable to timid success.
  • Fostering an environment where one isn't afraid to fail is tantamount to learning.
  • Human beings are complicated and flawed. Working with those complications and flaws leads to true knowledge.
Keep reading Show less