Christopher Schaberg: Object Lessons


Loyola University New Orleans professor Christopher Schaberg and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost are co-editors of Object Lessons, an online essay series published by the Atlantic and print book series published by Bloomsbury. Christopher Schaberg answered Room 220’s questions about the series and a few of its most recent publications.

Schaberg will join fellow Loyola colleague John Biguenet at 6 p.m. on Oct. 21 at Octavia Books (513 Octavia St.) to discuss Biguenet’s Silence, which was recently released along with Hotel by Joanna Walsh, Refrigerator by Jonathan Rees, Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly, Glass by John Garrison, and Waste by Brian Thrill. Read more about these—as well as previously published and upcoming—OL titles.

Schaberg and Biguenet will also be at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on Oct. 31 to discuss Silence and OL.

Room 220: How would you describe your Objects series for a non-academic reader?

Christopher Schaberg: Object Lessons is a series of beautiful short books about all sorts of ordinary things, from driver’s licenses to dust, from socks to silence. The idea is that the authors accept two constraints: twenty-five thousand words and a single object, and they write a book in whatever style they choose as long as the end result is lithe and geared to a wide audience. From the outset we wanted these books to appeal to crossover audiences, ranging from scholars and college students to everyday readers, business travelers, artists, scientists, book clubs, and so on. When we were launching the first four books at the Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver in January 2015, there was one moment in the book exhibit hall that really delighted me: Our books were definitely drawing interest from the various literature professors milling about, but then I also noticed a couple of the exhibit hall security guards picking up the Object Lessons books and talking about them—and then one of the guards bought a book! That was when I knew the series was working.

Rm220: Out of the many books in the series, I’ve read Hotel and Driver’s License. Both books read like lyrical first-person essays, but they don’t tend to have a narrative arc. “Meditative” is a good word to describe them. Would you describe the other books in the series as meditative and lyrical?

CS: I think the descriptive “meditative and lyrical” is accurate for most of the books in the series, so far. They all meditate on their object of choice, yes, and they almost must be lyrical to a certain extent, since they are constrained by their size—they have to be economical and sometimes move quickly, in order to get where they want to go in relatively short order. Some of the books are more narrative, others are more journalistic or historically focused. As the series continues to expand and diversify, the issue of style will both become more of a mystery (what the heck unifies the books in this series?), but will also sort of fade into the background. Maybe a useful analogy would be like a good tapas restaurant: one doesn’t look for commonalities or flavor consistencies between the dishes, but rather one is ready for each offering to surprise the palate.

OL editors Christopher Schaberg (left, with bass) and Ian Bogost (right, with antiquarian video game consoles)


Rm220: It seems a lot of your authors are academics, some early in their careers. How does the structure of these books differ from traditional academic monographs or dissertations?

CS: Our authors really run the gamut from early stage academics to freelance writers and accomplished novelists. I’d say only about half of our authors are ‘academics’ in a strict sense. Jack Pendarvis is hardly an academic, and yet he immediately understood the idea behind the series—and wrote a sharp and uproarious book for us, Cigarette LighterJohn Biguenet is a professor of creative writing, but he’s also an extremely accomplished fiction writer and playwright, and he brings a keen sense of inquiry to his philosophical essays in Silence. No matter who the author is, each book benefits from considerable marketing and sales savvy from Bloomsbury—and this has been a boon for the series. We try to keep the series open and attractive as a publishing opportunity to a wide variety of writers, and we want the books to be useful to people on various career paths: early stage academics, creative writers, and senior scholars who want to write a quirky short book on something they know a lot about, but which probably wouldn’t find another venue.

But yes, I always thought that the series could appeal to—and be useful for—certain early stage academics. One idea related to this topic—I forget where it came from—I’ve been intrigued by is the “mini-monograph.” A lot of Ph.D. students write these capacious dissertations overflowing with research minutiae, and sprinkled with occasional insights, and the challenge to transition from dissertation to book is how to hone and whittle away a lot of the academic language and introduce more narrative—unfortunately, a lot of the time this conversion process still results in something that is weighed down by jargon and too many “ways in which,” ending up in a handful of research libraries around the world, way back in the gloomy stacks. The mini-monograph is the wish image of a short book that distills a lot of research and is a pleasure to read. In certain cases, I think the Object Lessons books can serve this function for early stage academics (and for Ph.D.s who choose—or are forced—to become writers instead of academics). Scholars—and tenure and promotion committees—are beginning to see the value of such alternative forms of academic publishing, and hopefully Object Lessons can be part of this sea change.

Rm220: Would you say the books are hybrid, due to their shared characteristics with nonfiction, academic criticism, and the lyrical essay?

CS: Sure! I mean, every possible object is open to hybrid approaches (in terms of each individual book), and certainly the series as a whole is hybrid in the sense that it troubles the academic/trade boundary. We welcome book pitches from the most ‘experimental’ writers, as long as the writing is lucid and the object lesson is compelling. That being said, we only have ten slots a year for our books, and so the vetting process is fairly competitive. But then, we’ve got the Atlantic side of the series, and we can always turn a desirable book pitch into a sharp essay online, which benefits everyone involved even when we can’t commit to a whole book.

Rm220: These books, being meditative, require the reader to stick with the subject for a while, to see what develops. In this era of connectivity and instant gratification, it’s refreshing to have a text that doesn’t prod you along with plot. John Biguenet’s upcoming book on silence might speak to this idea, and the content may echo the form in a nice way. Did you intend to create a series that renounces our increasingly frantic, distracted reading styles?

CS: What even is a book anymore? Have books ever been simply one thing or another? What should a book be? I guess for us, some more interesting questions are: What can a 25,000-word book on a single object look like? How will it read, what surprises will it uncover? Can we cultivate a series that will make smart short books appealing to a wide range of possible readers? For this series, we decided early on that we wanted our books to be beautiful objects in their own right, things you’d want to hold and linger over (and maybe even collect a few of). So the design side of the series has always been part of the vision. Yes, these books ask readers to stick with a subject for a while—to accommodate and invite that sticking-with, we put a lot of time and care into the tactile feel and aesthetic aspects of the books. And they are books: paper sheets with words, between two covers, asking the reader to turn pages, and move at a certain pace. So, yes, in a sense, the series is a response to our other types of reading, mediated by our phones and screens: scrolling, swiping, thumbing, glancing, skimming…. Instead, open a book, read it for a couple hours, think about the object on the cover. John Biguenet’s Silence may well serve as a reflexive iteration of this aim of the series.

Rm220: Regarding meditative movement, Hotel is successful because at first you think you’re going to see hotels in a new way, but then you also see home, and then marriage, in new ways. That surprising twist—where shining light on one thing illuminates another—is excellent. Do the other books in your series do this, too? As editors, do you look for this sort of surprising illumination?

CS: Yes, Joanna Walsh’s Hotel is a fantastic book—one that, when I first read the manuscript, suggested the creative/hybrid possibilities for potential authors and new object-titles. I think Brian Thill’s Waste does this in its own way, John Garrison’s Glass, Jack Pendarvis’s Cigarette Lighter, and Ariana Kelly’s Phone Booth, too. And Alison Kinney’s Hood, which turns out to be all about murder. I actually think the end of Meredith Castile’s Driver’s License does this, too, with its closing turn to matters of identity politics. To be honest, as I think across all the books so far, each one has its own illuminating moment (or moments) and method. My co-editor Ian and I definitely look for these sorts of surprises—or really, it’s more like the potential for these sorts of surprises to occur while the author is writing the book. Often, these illuminations appear rather spontaneously as the authors get closer to, and wonder about, their objects.

Rm220: What do you and your co-editor, Ian Bogost, have in mind for the rest of the series? Will you continue to expand, indefinitely? You note in a previous interview that this is “the perfect series for up-and-coming authors,” so do you have any advice for writers considering making a proposal?

CS: We already have almost two dozen books under contract or published, and we plan to publish roughly ten books a year. We have lots of momentum, and plenty of exciting pitches and projects in the pipeline. Ian and I have support from our home institutions (Loyola and Georgia Tech), and we have students helping us out on various aspects of the series, giving these students real world experience in editing and publishing. We are lucky to have a strong advocate in our publisher Haaris Naqvi, who has been behind the series since its inception. As for what we have in mind … well, one of the sincere joys of the series is seeing what pitches come in out of the blue. We never know where the series is going to go. But then, when we have a project we want to get under contract, and we write the series editor endorsement for the proposal, it’s always fascinating to see how the objects constellate, how they create a bigger, more elaborate pattern, challenging our default notions of scale, nature, and culture.

As for writers who want to pitch a book idea: read some of the Atlantic essays, a couple books in the series, to get a sense of what we’ve done so far. While we’re always open to wacky ideas, we also appreciate when an author has a sense of what the series is (so far), what we’re after in terms of audience, tone, and accessibility. One more tip, at the risk of sounding superficial: we’ve been fortunate to have the sublime illustrations of Alice Marwick adorning our covers, and the process of deciding on the cover illustrations with our authors is invariably a thrill. Maybe, when pitching a new idea, think about what a possible cover illustration might be. Can you visualize it in a single, captivating figure, aligned with the series design? If so, you might be onto something … send us your pitch!