I grew up surrounded by books and a certain appreciation – or even reverence – towards books. I’ve always wanted to write one, except I wasn’t sure what to write about.
The subject of keyboards found me over and over. I wrote some articles and gave talks that seemed to be interesting, I stumbled upon a magical museum, and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn.
It took me a while (having to learn a second language slowed me down), and I had to warm up to this idea (the initial short sabbatical turned into quitting and a year of not working to spend on the book), but I’m almost done now.
I’ve read somewhere that everyone making a book tries to make a book of a kind they would like to see more. This is a story of what kind of book Shift Happens is, and why.
Thinking about and working on the book, I arrived at these three aspects that felt most important to me:
I didn’t want this book to be only for keyboard or typewriter nerds, but I did want to celebrate a certain nerdy obsessiveness and inquisitiveness – this book is 42 chapters, after all!
I was very inspired by The Soul of a New Machine and The Power Broker, and the amount of time and energy their authors spent on talking about people while not glossing over the technology. I love the way William Langewiesche injects humanity and ends his essays in an almost poetic fashion. I adore the warmth and casual seriousness of my favourite movie, Sneakers. There’s a way of writing that celebrates both the humane and the artificial, and I want to practice that.
Visual storytelling is important to me. I got to practice it in the last decade giving various talks. I wanted this book to have gorgeous visuals – but also meaningful visuals that participated in telling the story, rather than casual coffee-table soullessness.
You can read my book’s words and completely ignore the photos, and hopefully you’ll have a great time. You can also buy it just for the photos – for yourself or as a gift – and you will enjoy it also. But the best course of action is, of course, doing both.
I treated this aspect so seriously I came up with a rigid style guide, commissioned renders of objects lost to time or impossible to photograph, took hundreds of photos myself, and carefully thought about placement and juxtaposition.
I found few in-betweener books that do something similar to my book, books where about 50% of the pages are devoted to photography… but one close inspiration was The Bridge by Gay Talese.
I love and am inspired by books that are just ever so slightly strange, personal, and weird. Of note here in particular are books published by Read-Only Memory – each one quirky, unique, unapologetically British, approaching nostalgia in a more nuanced way than most.
My book has a cold open, borrows equally from European and American typesetting, has (clever! but not pretentious!) easter eggs, and – as per above – picks the best parts from trade books and coffee table books.
I think people will like this strange object that I care for so deeply.
I can’t seem to stop talking about keyboards or about the book. (These are just a few examples.)
I wanted making this book to be a learning experience to me. I think I learned some of the more obvious things – writing, editing, researching, interviewing, the inner workings of the publishing industry, paper and printing… but there were also a few less obvious things that I wanted to share with you.
And here are a few things I am really happy about when it comes to my book:
My book’s title has been something of an accident. I needed something quickly for the 5-minute Ignite talk I was planning that I linked to above. My brain rushed to either Shift Happens or Holy Shift because, obviously. I chose the former, assuming something else will eventually take its place.
I hated it then, deeming it vulgar and simplistic. But everyone else loved it, and in time it occurred to me it’s actually secretly a much better title than I gave it credit for. It hinted at a rigorous design process of keyboards not existing at all, things just happening haphazardly – and Shift being the first new key to appear, in the 1870s still, a harbinger of a confused future.
The book is the story of how Shift happened as that first new strange key, and then everything and every key that happened after that.