Debbie Millman

Academic; Writer; Lecturer; Executive; Designer / Graphic Design; Brand Design / United States / Sterling Brands, School of Visual Artists, Host, Design Matters

Debbie Millman’s Book List

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 have been in love with books ever since. In college I majored in English Literature and minored in Russian Literature. 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 reach 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 a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

10 books
Chris Ware

Chris Ware’s latest book isn’t really a book at all; it is 14 individual books full of ennui, stacked inside a box—14 books that tell the interlocking stories of the residents of a Chicago apartment building. The 14 pieces in Building Stories includes a game board, a newspaper, two hardcover books, and various ephemera filled with lonely, frustrated people aching for connection. There’s the one-legged thirty-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 is a lonely old landlady living on the ground floor, a couple living on 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.

Frieda Friedman

Dot for Short is a charming, bittersweet story written in 1947 about an insecure ten-year-old girl who can’t wait to grow up. “She envies her two gorgeous sisters (Fluff and Peg) who are tall and slender and know how to talk to boys.” Her family is having financial difficulties, which she feels powerless to improve. Then she sees an ad in a ladies’ magazine featuring a contest to write a limerick about “why you use Masterpiece Muffin mix.” The prize was $10,000. She, of course, writes a limerick and . . . well, that’s all I am going to tell you. Needless to say the entire scenario of the book converged with my life, my interests, and even my fledging enchantment with—dare I say it—branding.

Patricia Nell Warren

The New York Times called The Front Runner “the most moving, monumental love story ever written about gay life.” It is a book with enormous crossover appeal and was the first book of gay fiction to reach the New York Times Best Seller list. I found this book in my parents’ house when I was about 13 and read it cover to cover over one weekend.

Selma Lola Chambers

This is one of the first books I ever remember reading. I remembered having little scraps of paper on the cover, with different illustrations of pets and fruit and, somehow, I remembered a carrot. I thought the book was about art, as the main image I had in my head was a simply, yet profoundly rendered color wheel. Long before eBay, I searched for this book in New York flea markets and finally found it. But it wasn’t a book about art, ironically enough; it is called “Words.” And the color wheel was still there, and it is perfect.

Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Cholera takes place in an unnamed port city in the Caribbean. It remains unnamed throughout the story. Headstrong Fermina Daza is the 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. All the while, Ariza sincerely believes that he is saving his heart and his virginity for Fermina Daza. When her husband finally dies, Ariza immediately returns to Fermina, and she slowly she understands that she has loved him all along. They embark on a voyage to sail the Magdalena River, and in an effort to keep other passengers from boarding the boat, the captain raises the yellow flag of cholera. He asks Ariza how long they can possibly keep coming and going in this manner. “Forever” is his one word reply. Love in the Time of Cholera is one of the most perfect books ever written.

Jeffrey Eugenides

Aside from Love in the Time of Cholera, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, this is the only other book that has made me cry. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Middlesex is an epic saga of a cross-gender character, Cal, a hermaphrodite who carries a mutated gene.

Peter Hall Editor

Tibor Kalman was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. He founded the design firm M&Co (named for Tibor’s wife, Maira Kalman) and produced groundbreaking work for Talking Heads, Restaurant Florent, The Limited, and Interview magazine. He also had a keen eye for great talent and hired designers including Stefan Sagmeister, Stephen Doyle, Emily Oberman, Alexander Isley, Scott Stowell, and Alexander Brebner, who all went on to create their own firms and have had great success. Perverse Optimist 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.

Laurence Sterne

The book is remarkable in that it precedes modernism, postmodernism, and conceptual art by utilizing these techniques:
—blank chapters
—black pages
—white pages
—playful type
And it was all done in 1759!
Here is a great example of what is included in this brilliant tome:

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (complete title) is now seen as a forerunner of the use of stream of consciousness and self-reflexive writing. 1759!

James Joyce

This is one of the most impactful and inspiring books of my life. A seminal quote from the book, “The longest way round is the shortest way home,” has become the mantra of my life.

Jacqueline Susann

The book that set the stage for every Jackie Collins book ever written. A classic story of four women living in New York City and their quest for love, fame, and fortune, and the “dolls” that bring them all down (literally and figuratively).

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