John Hill’s Notable Books of 2012
Compiling a year-end list of notable books can be a tricky affair, given that publishing works in waves—spring and fall releases, to be precise. Furthermore, the wave that hits stores in the late fall and early winter just before the holidays tend to crowd out consideration toward earlier titles, much like the density of Oscar-worthy films bunched up at the end of the year vying for nominations in the short-term minds of Academy members. While this effect forces one to revisit books that were released earlier in the year, so as not to fall prey to year-end hype, it also makes it difficult to find trends that arise from books fitting into the 12-month calendar. Regardless, I’ve taken a stab at highlighting a few characteristics shared by titles on my list of ten notable books in 2012.
The monograph is far from dead. The architectural monograph has been touted as an “endangered species” (by Martin Filler in Architectural Record last year, among others), but three titles on my list fit into the category, and a fourth would be in there if my list extended to, say, a dozen. Monographs are particularly valuable when they compile information not readily available elsewhere (especially online sources), exploit the potential in controlling how text and images relate on a page, and become beautiful objects to hold. The monographs below are not groundbreaking, but they exhibit a lot of care in being made.
The juxtaposition of images and text in illustrated books is key. Increasingly books are talked about relative to online content, especially in terms of attention span, often expressed in word counts—a phrase like “nobody reads more than 5,000 words anymore” is common, an argument for shorter prose. Yet books benefit from being able to build up arguments across many pages that combine words and images, be it by one or a number of sources. Essays in related books from my list are often short, making them more readable to the digitally minded; and set between visual essays, for example, they take on new meanings. These books benefit by shifting between text and image, and between different voices, to comment on significant topics, be it healthcare, rampant urbanization, or living in a shrinking city.
Telling stories is not just for novels. When an architect or designer wants to get something across to a reader—be it a project, an argument, or just a point of view—wrapping it in a story is an effective tactic. It personalizes a design or experience and brings the reader closer to the content; one book below even uses the second-person voice to do such a thing. Close to half of the books on my list incorporate narrative in some manner: as a comic (the only bit of fiction on my list), as case studies, or as monographs. While image predominates these days, good writing is still important. When writing cuts through theory to help explicate matters it is often (but not always) effective.