Books, Walks, and the Edge of the World
The latest episode of On Margins is up: A walk in the woods with … me. During my solo Kumano Kodo walk in April of this year (2018), I recorded a few things including the intro to On Margins 004 (Elena Favilli) and this episode, 006:
Episode 006 is an experiment in capturing the walk and talk — I recorded it as I was walking down the Kohechi route from Koyasan to Hongu. Although I discuss the nitty gritty economics and production details of my book Koya Bound, I also get into light-touch philosophical territory around the power of objects:
Why make an object? Why print something out? Something irked me about those other walks [that I had done with various people over the past five years]: You do a walk. You have an experience, and then it disappears. How do you give edges to something that fundamentally doesn’t have an edge, that doesn’t have a container around it?
All you can do — the best you can do — is create an edit of that experience. You cull some subset of moments and try to pour them into an object, an artifact, something that’s immutable that you can hold in your hands, and you can say: “This. This is what we did. This is what that was.”
Koya Bound was a test in “artifacting” a walk I took with Dan Rubin in 2016. A photographic journal of the walk seemed like the simplest, most rational way to draw edges around eight days in the mountains. A book of photographs can have significantly less overhead than, say, a fully edited textual account. Although co-photographer Dan and I intended for the book to be done in a scant week, it ended up taking up months of our lives.
The results were worth it. We had a packed launch event at the Leica gallery in Ginza, Tokyo. And the project was even, shockingly, profitable — pre-selling more than $64,000 worth of books on Kickstarter. Discussed in more detail in the episode.
But even more importantly, it served as a connector between the walk Dan and I had done and the walks others would do.
On my solo walk this year — just hours before recording the episode — I met a couple by chance:
Sally, Francesco, and I started chatting on a small lip of path next to a pretty sharp drop. They were heading north. I was heading south. Sally said, “Are you Craig by any chance?” I said, “Maaaaaybe …” She said, “We are here because of Koya Bound and the Walk Kumano website.”
As much as my feet hurt, how could I not be delighted? That’s a wonderful thing to experience: In the moment — total serendipity on the trail — meeting someone who’s enjoying the heck out of this place you love. Enjoying it — knowing about it — because of a thing that you put into the world.
And as a thank you, they gave me some bandages, saving my blistered heels, which at that point were getting gnarly.
Giving edges to an experience. Amplifying it. Allowing it to continue to grow in the world after you’ve completed it. You could call this the classic super power of books — you die, disappear, vanish, but the transmutation of whatever led to that book lives on in the world.
Taking the time to give edges to an experience not only benefits others, but further intensifies and distills the experience for yourself. The best reading is re-reading, the best writing is re-writing, and the best walking is … re-walking? I think so.
As I rewalked in April the path I had covered with Dan, I found myself tapping into those images we spent so much time editing. Again, from episode 006:
I walked past a postbox yesterday. It was one that Dan shot. Instantly, I was back in that moment. I’ve walked this trail three or four times now. There are moments like that, layered experiences, at certain touch points along the path that transport me again and again as I re-experience them.
In re-walking a path becomes increasingly personal and personalized, and sharing the texture of that with others becomes more and more satisfying. You can never fully own a path but a path can become something that you merge with over time.
I’ve been obsessed with the power of objects for a while, especially in the context of ephemerality. And digital media is nothing if not ephemeral.
To diverge from the mountains for a moment — years ago I made a book about an app. Or, rather, made a book from an app — The Flipboard for iPhone book.
As I wrote in that essay:
As Flipboard for iPhone was nearing completion, I began to think about this detritus — our narrative; the proof of our journey. What struck me is that despite knowing we had been on a long journey, it didn’t feel like that journey was manifest anywhere.
Sure, you could open the design folder and cover flow through our thousand design comps. You could peek in the git repository and scroll through the near infinite number of commit messages. But, still: that thinness! The experiential texture of the journey was butting against the singularity — that fog of immateriality — that information enters when made digital.
I was leaving the company at the end of the year and I needed something to represent that journey. To give it edges, for me. For the company. So I did what I do — I flip-flopped the data. I made a book.
In that moment I had made that book for the team — for us to do that very thing I wrote about above: to take an immutable object in our hands and say, “THIS! This is what we made!”
It worked. Or at least it felt like it provided closure. But over time, the power and import of that book has grown in unexpected ways.
App stores issue an odd but mostly sensible bargain: they provide distribution and frictionless payment in exchange for never going back in time. That is, old versions of software can’t be accessed. Software on an app store exists as the thinnest edge of an app’s life. Version x.x.4. Then x.x.5 the following week.
And so the version of Flipboard for iPhone we made back in 2011 can now only be seen / touched / remembered with any coherent wholeness in book form. I had not considered this when I made the book. But now I know that had I not made that book I’d have lost touch with much of that work.
When I lecture or give talks about these topics, I point to this as a prime reason to properly document milestones in software development: They pay dividends in wisdom and memory over the long arc of time.
As in software, so too can be said for life: Sanity is found in documenting milestones in ways you can wrap your hands around.
Back on the trail with Koya Bound:
Even as I walk today, yesterday, and the day before, because I put that book together, there is a resonance of moments, the moments from the book that I feel as I walk. And I feel this resonance in a strangely deep, irrationally mystical way.
The book (and maybe more importantly, the experience of having made the book) reminds me that time is both linear and non-linear — and that lines or bridges between non-contiguous moments can be cast with the help of objects in the world.
Author and poet Sarah Manguso has been keeping a diary since she was a child. It’s 800,000 words long. Every day she feels a compulsion to capture her mind. At the start of her memoir, ruminating on her diary habit she writes:
I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.
Recording as a pathology.
In many ways, this is why I make the books I make. Why we may print out the things we print out. To give form to the formless. To remember. Holding it, however piecemeal, in our hands and saying, “Yep. This. We did this.”