Tiny Billboards

You can ALWAYS get some more words in edgewise
(Image by Ashim D’Silva, via Unsplash)

So I might as well admit it. I have a spine fetish.

Book spines do SO MUCH WORK, and are so under-regarded. Everybody worries about the splashy book cover, and in the age of online book sales, cover art is indeed a big deal. But in the world of visual, material books—in bookstores, in libraries, even at home once you’ve bought them—that tiny little ribbon is doing almost all the work there is to be done.

And it is tiny. Even a giant, Song of Ice and Fire-sized brick has a spine that’s maybe nine inches by two in full hardcover expanse, a fifth of a sheet of notebook paper. Most of us get way less space even than that; most of the books that I’ve laid out for print are more like 8.5 inches by two-thirds, not even six square inches. By comparison, a standard business card is exactly seven square inches, so we can think of a book’s spine as a linear-format business card, offering both information and allure simultaneously. It’s an ingenious graphic design problem, and one that I wish we talked more about.

I’m not trained in graphic design, as you can probably tell. But I’ve hung around books for over sixty years, and I’ve learned to copy some things. Here’s the five spines of my five most recent books.

What’s going on here? Well, two things (at least). One is that the graphic language of the cover is carried onto the spine in some way, usually in color and typeface both and with some variant of the layout logic. So for my book Leopard, all of the cover text is doubled, in black and in red, rotated 180 degrees across an implied horizontal centerline, to suggest the idea of a table tennis table with two opponents across a net, and also to pick up on the fact that table tennis rackets have to be built with red rubber on one face and black rubber on the other so that your opponent can see what you’re hitting with. (Don’t even start… read the book if you want to know more than that.) The spine amends that idea while still adhering to it. The galvanized farm rust of & Sons is carried over; the single leaf of Trailing Spouse is carried over; even the gold accent line of the cover of The Abbot of Saginaw is carried over. If the cover is the first twelve lines of the sonnet, the spine is the last two, holding the same theme but in a new rhyming pattern.

The other thing that’s happening, and you can check this against the books on your own shelves, is that the title of the book is emphasized and the name of the author downplayed. Have a look at this image, from a “book spine poetry” contest entry that reads The Female Brain / Educated / GirlBoss / Yes Please:

There are four books here, and in three cases, you’re being asked to primarily consider the title; the author is more or less anonymous, not a brand name. In the fourth case, you’re being asked to consider the author, because Amy Poehler is famous and funny and we’ll read anything she writes. Go to the bookstore and look for whatever array of “big name authors” you can think of—Stephen King, Donna Leon, Louise Penny, John Grisham—and you’ll find that they’re quite literally “big names,” the authors whose name is bigger on the spine than the book titles. This is what agents and publishers talk about when they use the word platform: is your name big enough for the book to stand on and be visible in a crowd? Will people fundamentally buy you, and only secondarily care about the specifics of what you carry?

Look again at these four commercially-released spines. Visually, they aren’t doing anything especially flashy. They can’t, really: you risk illegibility when you’re too busy in a small space. They’re giving you information, about an interesting idea or an interesting person; they’re carrying over the colors and typefaces of the cover; and they’re hinting at a graphic feature (the frame around the text on the top book, the sharpened pencil point on the second, the hashtag/italics on the third and the illusion of a neon sign on the fourth). That’s it. That’s the vertical business card that people will use after their experience of the cover has faded.

These spines are also doing one other thing, which is vetting that the book has been sponsored by a legitimate publishing house. From the top down, we have the marks of Morgan Road Books, Random House, Penguin, and Harper Collins’ Dey Street. My professional books have those marks as well, but my novels do not, nor do they have ISBNs and barcodes on the back. That absence also does a little work, indicating that those stories inhabit the world of gift rather than the world of commerce.

I’ve looked at the edges of books for my whole life, mostly without thinking about it until twenty years ago when my own ideas started to be wrapped in covers. Book spines are compressed composition, remarkably ingenious when they’re done well, and deserve to be celebrated as an art form of their very own merit.

Lifetime Achievement Award

Good job, buddy!!!

[George Clooney’s wife] Amal Alamuddin is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person UN commission investigating rules-of-war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Tina Fey & Amy Pohler, Golden Globes 2015

We do love our round numbers. Whether it’s home runs in a career or the number of origami cranes we’ve folded this week, getting to 500 just feels like something different than having 496.

A couple of days ago, I got word that someone had mentioned The Adjunct Underclass in something they’d written, and in the roundabout way of hyperlinks, I ended up at my page on Google Scholar. And because we all want to verify that our lives have mattered, I counted the number of times that my work has collectively been cited by other scholars over the years.

If you’re in higher ed, by the way, this is not a trivial pastime. Citation count, and the various statistics drawn from it (H-index, G-index, I-10, and so on), are among the most central tools that scholars have to make their case when it comes time for tenure and promotion. Publish or perish, right? One of the things that serious scholars do is to contribute productively to the larger conversations of their field, and contribution (at least in part) means that your work has laid a path that others have pushed further. So looking at my body of work, I’ve written 13 books or articles that have collectively been cited in published scholarly literature 506 times. That means that at least five hundred times, my thinking has helped someone else move their intellectual work down the field or in a new direction altogether.

You’re welcome.

Now, is it the case that five hundred is a lot? Or is it like five hundred pieces of elbow macaroni, about half a box? I searched Google Scholar with the names of 25 people I know who’d had tenure-track jobs in the humanities and social sciences for twenty or more years, a meaningful comparison. And the answer is that I’m sixth out of those twenty-five in total citations.

And I’ve been that productive without access to academic libraries and databases, without paid memberships and annual travel to scholarly societies, without research assistants or grant support, without doctoral students and postdocs, without summers set aside for curiosity. Just imagine…

I was talking with a friend today about the end of my academic career twenty-five years ago.

School, from kindergarten to doctoral education, is carefully designed to offer you hurdles to cross, and feedback about how well you’ve cleared them. And because I never felt like I belonged anywhere when I was a kid, that need to belong got invested fully in school. I knew what my teachers wanted, and I did eight times that much so that they’d love me and want me to be with them. That worked in first grade, and sixth grade, and twelfth grade, and sixteenth grade, and twenty-first grade. I had found a community that valued me, that valued what I could do both as an individual and as a member of a larger body.

When that mechanism for challenge and feedback was removed, when I spent so many years sending letters to anonymous search committees whose first job was to remove as many candidates from consideration as possible and never let anyone know how they’d made their decisions, when I realized that there was nothing I could do that would let me continue to belong to the community that had once loved me, the word that came to mind for me today was terror.


I want that word to sink in. I want you to think about what it means to have your only social and emotional strategy suddenly be no longer successful, no longer welcomed. What it means to know that you will die alone in the wilderness, unable to speak, left to suffocate. What it means to go, literally overnight, from champion to discard.

And then think about knowing, twenty-five years later, that you’ve been so demonstrably productive for a community that didn’t want you. How other people’s real faculty careers have been furthered by the work you’ve done, even as you’ve been left to watch their safety from outside the airlock, as you hammer in panic on the impenetrable shell.

We all know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s not the definitive social science concept that it once was, but it’s still a pretty good tool for understanding emotional life.

First, we need to survive. We need to eat and breathe and not freeze or overheat.

Then we need to be safe, to be protected from harm and theft.

And once those two first bars have been passed (and I recognize that it’s a powerful privilege that I don’t have to personally worry about either), we need to belong. Way before self-esteem and self-actualization, we need to feel as though we’re part of a tribe, that we aren’t isolated. That other people want us to be there, value the work that we do.

We are social beings, and isolation is historically a social punishment: an exile, a shunning, an excommunication, an act of removal and exclusion. The epaulets torn from the shoulders, the buttons ripped from the tunic, the sword snapped and tossed out of the stockade gate.

I kept doing research and thinking in my field, publishing cited work regularly for over twenty years since my dissertation. I made plenty of money during my years in the wilderness. But I had no heart left in me. I had been broken.

I have since found other communities in which I belong. It took decades to do it, because I could only see the one.

We’re all taught to wrap up an essay with a summative statement, a moral lesson, a recommendation. I don’t really have one here, but I’ll lay out a few threads, one of which you might grasp.

First. If you’ve been exiled, from whatever community, please let go sooner than you think you want to. You can’t find a new community until you relinquish your futile grasp on the old one. You will never prove yourself worthy to them, so just stop, and walk away.

Second. You can be proud of the work you’ve done even if it hasn’t brought you the rewards you deserved. I mean, five hundred citations! That’s a marker of a lot of solid and beneficial thinking, from 1993 through 2019. And that’s enough. Give yourself your very own lifetime achievement award, sanctioned by no one and yet fully earned.

Third. If you’ve made it through the gates that have been closed to so many, take that opportunity you’ve been given and wring it dry. Don’t be the person with the sinecure who does well enough. Use all those resources at your disposal to be an all-star. That may not mean citations, but it does mean reaching every day for the very best of your own definition of scholar. (Or writer, or artist, or whatever competitive field you’ve entered that others have not.)

Fourth. Remember that word: terror. Remember that we are not talking about an objective status of hired or not hired, of economically safe or challenged. We are talking about the sudden and unexpected loss of our beloved community, of suddenly being rendered silent even as we try to speak. Try to exercise compassion for the exile, in whatever ways you can imagine.

Front-of-the-House Writer

Ten thousand decisions, all for you.
(image by Chris Liverani, via Unsplash)

In my very first novel, there’s a scene in which the pool player Robert Yoder and the bartender Charles Collignon are trying to decide whether they can partner to build a pool hall in Saginaw, Michigan. Robert has come to visit Charles in New Orleans, and Charles is taking Robert for an evening in town to teach him about hospitality. Here, he’s walked Robert through something as simple and as invisible as table-setting:

Under Charles’ tutelage, Robert worked his way through the entirety of the table: salt and pepper, napkin and tablecloth, flower arrangement, candle, the orientation and placement of plates as they arrived.  Along the way, they had their Julep and Sazerac, along with a Vieux Carre and a Ramos Gin Fizz, Charles instructing Robert on the fine points of mix and presentation for each.

After dinner, Robert said, “You know, I just look at a table and see a table. But now I’m seeing decisions, hundreds of decisions.”

Charles nodded, sipping water. “And one goal of all of those decisions is to be unnoticed, to simply be at hand. You don’t notice that the handle of the bread knife is to the right, but since most of us are right handed, we reach for the knife and come to the handle. We hold the bread in our left hand when we butter it, so the bread plate is above the left service. You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.” He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab.  “I knew that I didn’t want to be a chef like my father—kitchen work is hot and sweaty, people yell at one another constantly, always under pressure to move faster. The front of the house is what always interested me, the management of people’s happiness.”

My books are “about” a hundred different things. They’re “about” playing pool and darts and table tennis, “about” university life and failed careers, “about” corn farming and urban policy and industrial decline, “about” adoption and the social forces that normalize children. But those are all culinary decisions, choices about cuisine and menu-building. There’s an entire paired but unspoken body of choices about the experience of dining, about how—regardless of cuisine—we can build a pleasing, immersive, unified experience.

And that’s what a good restaurant, or a good book, really is. It’s the unification of the culinary interests of the chef and her staff with the hospitality interests of the dining floor team.

Let’s look at one specific decision that I made in that excerpt above, a decision that I understand right now reading it again in a way that I understood natively nine years ago but never could have named. And the decision I want to call your attention to is the sentence He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab. Let’s think about that sentence the way we’d think about the placement of the bread plate: what exactly is it doing?

The most obvious thing that it’s doing is breaking up Charles’ long soliloquy into two parts. My characters tend to be well-educated people, and here, Charles clearly has Robert’s permission to be the teacher—that’s why they’re at that table. So it’s no surprise that Charles is able to deliver, in that moment, an unbroken 152-word statement, something that would take a minute or a minute-fifteen of real-time to say. It’s not a simple conversation, which would have lots of interruptions and mutuality. It’s a lesson.

But let’s look at the placement of that breaking sentence within the soliloquy. All of the statement before represents the conclusion to Charles’ analysis of the objective world before them: the tableware, the glasses, the sequence and presentation of courses. The statement after the breaking sentence is subjective: it’s about Charles’ own history within the world of fine dining, and his decision to attend to the front of the house rather than the kitchen. Without you ever knowing it, I’ve divided that one unified piece of discourse into two related but not identical topics, and signaled the mutual importance of each.

It’s doing a second thing, too: it’s reminding us that we’re at a table in a restaurant. Lots of beginner writers recognize the importance of breaking long dialogue into chunks, but they don’t quite realize that it’s a positive tool rather than merely a defensive act. So they’ll drop in a sentence like, “She sighed heavily” or “He fidgeted in his chair” as a sort of typographic device that breaks a long statement. But those kinds of stage directions don’t accomplish much; they reinforce (or sometimes act in the absence) of the emotional life that ought to be carried in the dialogue itself. We oughtn’t to hear her sigh, we ought to feel her weariness in every sentence she says. We oughtn’t to see him fidget this one time, we ought to see him perpetually as a nervous man in constant motion.

So when Charles signs for the bill to be applied to his tab, it’s an action specific to this location—the end of a meal in a fine restaurant—but it also does a third thing. It hearkens back to the fact that the maitre d’ and Charles greeted one another by name at his arrival, back to the fact that Charles knows exactly how they make a Vieux Carre and a Sazerac here. Charles has chosen this restaurant for his lesson because he knows it intimately, he’s a regular enough patron that they’re happy to have him run a tab. This is the kind of restaurant at which he feels the power of hospitality himself, and has returned to it dozens or hundreds of times—of course it’s where he’ll take Robert for his lessons. This simple sentence highlights the familial love Charles holds for this place.

You never saw any of that, did you? But in the context of reading, I think you’d have felt it. “You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.”

For the past couple of months, I’ve been stuck about what my next novel might be. There’s lots of reasons for that. My wife and I both just recovered from Covid. I’ve been completely immersed in the work of a client college. I’ve just taught three months of short-story writing, and coached two friends into the editing of their own books. And there’s just the native emotional trough that comes with the completion of each book, a natural period of exhaustion and adjustment that must be endured before the next can begin.

But I find myself now eager to perform hospitality again. And rather than fret about starting from culinary choices, I’m ready to embrace my work as front-of-the-house manager, welcoming you again to a rich and engaging evening. Maybe it’ll be Thai food, maybe Kansas City barbecue. Doesn’t matter. I’m ready to be your host.