02 January 2020 Ideas Life

Paper is perfect

My most pleasurable reading experience of the past year has been Robin Sloan’s Year of the Meteor newsletter. Every Sunday, I was comforted to see that new email message nestle into my inbox. Sometimes I would read it right away. Sometimes I would let it linger there for weeks before I got around to opening it. The newsletter didn’t command my attention. It would be there when I was ready for it.

Inside was a grab bag of old public-domain images, pop culture ruminations, historical trivia, internet observations, gleeful recommendations for books and articles and a peek into Robin’s creative process. It felt offhand and timeless at the same time.

I’m a sucker for people playing with the boundaries of online media. With Year of the Meteor, Robin pushed and pulled at the fabric of the Web to create something new. Part of that effort was his series of “print offerings” — love that description, by the way — single-page stories, almost pamphlets, mailed to my home for a cool $1.59 USD. He a did a few of these throughout the year.

The first thing these print offerings did was upend the Internet expectation of instant gratification. By the time they arrived, enough time had passed for me to forget that something was coming. Yet, like the predictable Sunday afternoon schedule of the email newsletter, I’d always find the print offerings in my mailbox just as I was getting home from a day at the store. Whatever else I had planned for that night immediately fell to second place behind my desire to curl up on the couch and breathe in some offbeat writing.

Robin encouraged us, his readers, to take photos of the print offerings and share them on social media. In this, he fully embraced the current moment of the Internet — the offerings are incredibly Instagrammable. I held up my salmon-pink pamphlet for arm’s-length photos as a status symbol, an aesthetic triumph salvaged from my mailbox full of pizza coupons and unsolicited propaganda from my MP.

This waiting and build-up is part of the draw. The commitment to buy a sheet of paper with some words and pictures, the forgetting about it all, the surprise at discovering (re-discovering?) it, the realization that Robin folded this paper with his own hands after running it through a Risograph printer, the wonder at what is a Risograph printer anyway and how is it different than the Xerox at any old office building, the feel of the paper, which always seemed on point but now carries a special gravitas after finding out that Robin sourced it specifically from a paper mill in Michigan, and I am not holding a letter in my hand. I am holding an artifact.

The typeface and photo credits on the back are very book-like. The gaudy international shipping label that takes up 90% of the back panel brings to mind a magazine subscription. The words inside read more or less like a blog post but that word, blogging, has become so polluted by folks trying to optimize for reach or keywords or page bounce.

These offerings are pamphlets, in the “pamphleteering” sense of the word, bringing all the zeal and urgency of their political predecessors into the world of fiction.

They appear loose, wild, free, untethered by a blog’s archive and free from the grasp of Google’s indexing spiders. But it’s neat to think about the degree of control Robin can exert over the reading experience, as compared to digital publishing. He can be sure that I will first glimpse the cover as I’m arriving home and opening my mailbox. That the paper will have a certain heft and will open with a crisp pop. That I won’t really be able to skim it distractedly, as I need two hands to hold the larger-than-normal paper. That the title picture will be in monochrome and slightly smudgy, and that he’ll be able to use that limitation as an artistic advantage.

All this to say, big thanks to Robin Sloan and his 2019 Year of the Meteor project. If you want to follow whatever he does next, and I suggest you do, sign up on his website.

Sam Nabi

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