Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.
This episode, we hear from Debbie Millman (@debbiemillman), who has been named one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company and one of the most influential designers working today by Graphic Design USA. She is the host of Design Matters—a great show and one of the world’s longest running podcasts. She is also chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and editorial director of Print magazine.
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Debbie Millman: My name is Debbie Millman, and I am a designer, the author of six books, the editorial director of Print magazine, the chair of the Masters In Branding program at the School Of Visual Arts in New York City and host of one of the world’s longest running podcasts, Design Matters.
When I was a kid, there were lots of rules in my house. One of the most horrific for me at the time was the very limited amount of television I was allowed to watch. As a result, I read, and I read a lot. I read books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, and comic books. I even borrowed my mother’s Redbook and Ladies Home Journal and snuck into my father’s library to read the steamy sections of The Godfather when I was sure that no one would catch me. My fascination with books began as soon as I could read, and Golden books were my favorite. As soon as I got into grade school, I was introduced to the Weekly Reader and there was nothing, nothing, I looked forward to more than the moment every week when Mrs. Mayer handed out those gorgeous publications.
By third grade, I was introduced to the Scholastic Book Club, and while my folks were stingy with television privileges, they were quite generous with my book allowance. I ordered as many books as I could afford and when the boxes came in with my name on them, I spent a moment gingerly fingering the corrugated brown carton. I’d sit for a minute or two and imagine what was inside, what the books would be like, and of course how they would look. I’ve been in love with books ever since. In university I majored in English literature and minored in Russian literature and though I often joke now that I got a college degree in reading, I really have no regrets.
Books have sustained me, nourished me, provided solace in lonely times, and in one case inspired me to fall in love and subsequently changed my life. The books on my list are some of the books that have inspired and moved me over the course of my life. These books, as Marcel Proust’s famous description of the madeleine, “ultimately reached the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old dead moment, which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the depths of my being. . . . But when from a long distant past, nothing subsists after people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered . . . taste and smell . . . alone more fragile, but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised in a long time, like souls remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest and bare unflinchingly in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
The following books are some of my favorite and are told in the order of my discovering them. The Little Golden Book of Words, written by Selma Lola Chambers, has been out of print for a long time. Originally published in 1948 it includes gorgeous illustrations by Gertrude Elliot, and it is one of the first books I ever remember reading. When I was trying to find the book again as an adult, I couldn’t remember the title. I recalled it had little scraps of paper on the cover and featured different illustrations of pets and fruit—somehow I remembered a carrot. I thought the book was about art, as the main image I had in my head was simply poignantly rendered color wheels.
Long before eBay, I searched for the book in New York City flea markets and finally I found it, but I discovered it wasn’t a book about art. Ironically enough, it’s titled Words, but the color wheel was still there. The entire book is magical and perfect.
In college, I read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. It was first published in 1759. Sterne incorporated other texts from other books—Robert Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy, Francis Bacon’s Of Death, and many more in to Tristram Shandy. The book also references John Locke’s Theories Of Empiricism, the way we organize what we know about ourselves—be it the power of association of our ideas—and employs visual techniques never, ever seen before in any book prior.
The book is remarkable in that it proceeds modernism, postmodernism and conceptual art by utilizing these techniques. Blank chapters, black chapters, white pages, playful type and doodles, and it was all done in 1759. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen is now seen as a forerunner of the use of stream of consciousness and self-reflexive writing. It is mind-blowing in its entirety and one of the most inventive original books ever written.
A book that I keep going back to over and over and is one that I included in my interview with Tim Ferriss in his book, Tribe Of Mentors, is the anthology, The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Gorgeously, thoughtfully and carefully edited by Hayden Carruth, it was required reading in a summer college class I attended back in the early 1980s. This funny looking book introduced me to my most treasured, deeply felt poem, Maximus To Himself by Charles Olson, which has since become a blueprint of my life. As well as the poetry of Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ezra Pound, Wally Stevens and so many more. I still have my original copy and though the cover’s come off and the spine is cracked in numerous places, I will never replace it.
I first read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the late 1980s. The book takes place in an unnamed port city in the Caribbean and remains unnamed throughout the novel. Headstrong Fermina Daza is a female lead in the story, and after a brief love affair through letters with Florentino Ariza, she ultimately rejects him and marries Juvenal Urbino. Lovesick and forlorn, Ariza is obsessed and tormented by his love for Fermina Daza. “It’s no use,” he tells his uncle at the beginning of the novel. “Love is the only thing that interests me.” And love he does. Though Florentino Ariza believes that Fermina Daza is his soulmate and vows to remain faithful to her, he proceeds to engage in 662 affairs over the next 50 years. He does this while sincerely believing that he is saving his heart and his virginity for her.
When Fermina’s husband finally dies, Ariza immediately returns to her, and she slowly realizes that she has loved him her whole life, all along. They embark on a voyage to sail the Magdalena river, and in an attempt to keep other passengers from boarding the boat, the captain raises the yellow flag of cholera. He asks Ariza for how long they could possibly keep coming and going in this manner. “Forever,” is his one word reply. Love In The Time Of Cholera is perhaps the most perfect book ever written.
Perverse Optimist by Tibor Kalman and edited by Michael Bierut and Peter Hall truly influenced how I practice the discipline of design. Tibor Kalman was one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century.
He founded the design firm, M & Company, named for his wife, Maira Kalman, and produced groundbreaking work for the Talking Heads, restaurant Florent, The Limited and Interview magazine. He also had a keen eye for great talent and hired the designers including Stefan Sagmeister, Stephen Doyle, Emily Oberman, Alexander Isley, Scott Stoll, and Alexander Brebner, who all went on to create their own firms or have joined other firms and have had great, great success. Perverse Optimist, first published one year after Tibor’s death in 1999, features anecdotes and commentary from Kalman’s clients, his staff, his peers, and his friends. It is an incredible book about an incredible designer, thinker and bad boy provocateur.
My next book is A General Theory Of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. We are now surrounded by a world of activity that can’t be seen. The patterns produced by the splash of a raindrop happen too fast for our eyes to catch. Is it possible we could direct our brains to see more? The authors of A General Theory Of Love, written in 2001, write this: “The scientist and artist both speak to the turmoil that comes from having a triune brain. A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing or to love the right person or to be happy after disappointment or even to be happy in happy times. People lack this capacity not through a deficiency of discipline, but because of the jurisdiction of will is limited to the latest brain and to those functions within its purview. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.”
Our society’s love affair with mechanical devices that respond at a button-touch does not prepare us to deal with the unruly organic mind that dwells within. Anything that does not comply, must be broken or poorly designed. Which, as Charles Olson might say, makes for difficulties and where neo-chordal brain has the ability to organize and convey logic and reason, the limbic brain inspires and can involuntarily feel love. Yet according to Lewis, the verbal rendition of emotional material demands a difficult transmutation. Poetry, a bridge between the neocortical and limbic brains is simultaneously improbable and powerful. A General Theory Of Love is a book about human love in all its forms and is written in a brilliant poetry-inspired narrative.
I’m going to be talking about two books now together. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson and Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. In his novel, Pattern Recognition, William Gibson has one of his characters describe branding in this way. “All truly viable advertising addresses the older, deeper mind, beyond language and logic. You know in your limbic brain, the seat of instinct, the mammalian brain, deeper, wider, beyond logic. What we think of as mind is only a sort of jumped up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older mammalian mind. But it is our culture that tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent-wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda, and it makes us buy things.”
I think that we do buy things to help us fit in and feel more comfortable, and being part of a larger tribe, so to speak, is no doubt one of the benefits of branding. Brands create intimate worlds inhabitants can understand and where they can be somebody and feel as if they belong. I think Marty Neumeier states it best when he confides his thoughts about tribes that he belongs to in his book, The Brand Gap. “We can belong to the Callaway Club when we play golf, the Volkswagen tribe when we drive to work, the William Sonoma tribe when we cook a meal, the Nike club when we work out.” He goes on to say, “As a weekend athlete, my two nagging doubts are that I might be congenitally lazy and that I might have little actual ability, but I’m not really worried about my shoes. When the Nike folks say just do it, they’re peering into my soul. I begin to feel that if they understand me that well, their shoes are probably pretty good. I am then willing to join the tribe of Nike.”
But to see the world in brand tribes is to take possession of much more than just a theory of the world. It is to possess a theory of all the activity in it, perhaps an entire science and ethology that could tell us everything we want to know about human behavior. I think the way Neumeier describes brands is probably one of the most poetic and forgiving of the place that products now have in our lives. The mammalian part of our brain is indeed the part of the brain that makes us want to be part of a tribe, and I do think that we buy brands that make us feel part of that tribe in order to be able to participate in that tribe.
But I think it goes deeper than that. We’re buying brands and products to be part of a tribe because now in a day and age and culture and world we are living in, we are otherwise tribeless. We feel tribeless and disconnected because despite our technological connectedness, we are emotionally and physically further away from our friends and family than ever before in human history. We’ve now replaced our closeness with people, with closeness with brands that at best can only represent that we are close to others.
Pattern Recognition is a novel written in 2002, before Facebook and YouTube had launched, but somehow predicted the creation of both. The Brand Gap was written in 2005, but it is one of the first books to present a unified theory of brand building. Individually they’re both great books, but together they provide a unique perspective that the power of brands have in our lives.
Building Stories by Chris Ware. Chris Ware’s Building Stories published in 2012, is so much more than a book. It is 14 individual experiences, full of ennuis, heartbreak, joy, and elation. Humans living their lives stacked in a box, 14 interlocking stories of the residents of a Chicago apartment building. The 14 pieces in Building Stories include a game board, a newspaper, two hardcover books, and various ephemera filled with lonely, frustrated people aching for connection. There’s the one-legged 30-something woman, who is also the central character, living on the top floor, frustrated with her husband gaining weight and wondering what happened to her dreams. There’s a lonely old landlady living on the ground floor, a couple living in the middle floor with relationship problems, and Branford the best bee in the world who is truly a thinking bee. The design is not limited to the story or the presentation of the book, it is central to the narrative. Building Stories is remarkable and sets the stage for an entirely new way of storytelling.
My last book is the book Hunger by Roxane Gay. When I first read Roxane Gay’s 2017 New York Times bestselling book, Hunger: A Memoir Of My Body, I thought I was reading my own diary. Her words hit me like few other books have. I felt simultaneously seen, understood, and heard. All this from a book. Lines like “I am full of longing and I am full of envy, and so much of my envy is terrible” just pierced my heart. Mine was too. Then came this statement. “I was a gaping wound of need. I couldn’t admit this to myself, but there was a pattern of intense emotional masochism, of throwing myself into the most dramatic relationships possible, of needing to be a victim of some kind, over and over and over.”
That was something familiar. Something I understood. Man, oh, man, did I understand that. I understood it until, after a lot of therapy, I didn’t understand it anymore. And then in an aberrant moment of courage, I asked Roxane to be a guest on my podcast. She said yes. Then she said no. A year later, a generous friend put in a good word for me, and I took Roxane Gay out on a proper date. Five months later, she was finally a guest on my podcast, and one year later we got engaged. Sometimes books take you to very unexpected places, they change your life in every imaginable and unimaginable way. Thanks for listening.
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