Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #132: Building New York by Bruce Marshall

Sometimes you need to figure out why a book exists before you can really understand it. If you think a book exists because of X, when it really was Y, you can get a confused sense of its success.

Building New York is a classy coffee-table book, published by the Universe imprint of the very classy art-book publisher Rizzoli in 2005, featuring a lot of glorious, mostly black-and-white, pictures of New York buildings and other major construction projects (bridges, tunnels, subways, etc.)

So far, so clear. Ah! But it's written by Bruce Marshall, who founded Reader's Digest's "general books" program and afterward became a noted book packager -- and the book itself is copyright Getty Images. That gets us much closer to the truth.

This is a book that exists because Getty has a lot of pictures, and wants them to provide a revenue stream. They get a certain amount of money from passive licensing -- an ad campaign here, a random designer pulling an image from their site there -- but every content owner wants more leverage, more active programs, and more money. I have to presume that the gigantic Getty database is tagged in various ways, and some smart chappie realized they could output the overlap of "New York City" and "Construction" for the purposes of building a book around those pictures.

This is that book. It doesn't have as much structure as it seems like it should, and its coverage of major architects and other figures (Robert Moses gets his own section, but no one else) feels perfunctory and beside the point. And that's because all of those things were beside the point. Getty had pictures: Getty made those pictures into a book that would generate more revenue.

Those pictures are quite nice: Getty is the gold standard of picture archives, after all, and NYC has been heavily documented for its entire existence. People who know more about photography than me would probably point out that there are some actually famous photos in this book, by actually famous photographers. (I'm pretty sure of that, though I couldn't tell you exactly which or why.)

So Building New York is not a book to read: it does have words in it, pleasingly arranged, covering all of these construction projects in turn, but those words are primarily to keep the pictures from bumping into each other and only secondarily to tell the reader facts. This is a book to look at -- to place, slightly askew, on a big glass-topped coffee table, and to pick up now and then when you can't find anything good on Netflix. If you're in the market for a book like that, this is a good 'un.

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