Art of McSweeney’s a delightful yearbook of literary success

To be honest, I’ve missed the boat on a few things. I thought [i]Harry Potter[/i] wasn’t particularly well-written. I was lukewarm on [i]The Da Vinci Code[/i]. [i]Twilight? [/i]Who knew? That said, it’s a real point of pride I got in on the ground floor with Timothy McSweeney’s [i]Quarterly Concern[/i], the groundbreaking, all-star literary journal Dave Eggers founded in 1998, prior to hitting it big with [i]A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius[/i] (Vintage, 2000).

For the last dozen years, McSweeney’s has distinguished itself by pairing literary excellence with exquisite design. The McSweeney’s name is a guarantee of quality­—catnip for book collectors.

[i]Art of McSweeney’s [/i](Chronicle Books, $45) is a coffee-table-size celebration of all things McSweeney, an oral biography with behind-the-scenes recollections from Eggers, contributing writers, artists and production staff. It’s also a lush scrapbook with previously unseen material, starting with the Eggers-penned e-mail that outlined his original concept. (He imagined the new journal would be “about 160 pages, perfect-bound and . . . look like most literary quarterlies.”) There are sketches and drafts from most issues, a peek at early graphic influences (antiquarian titles, in particular) and detailed invoices from printers.

It’s interesting to see how the bar was raised for each subsequent issue. Can we do an issue with a soundtrack from They Might Be Giants? Sure. A high-concept issue designed to look like a bundle of junk mail? You bet. Can we include DVDs and pocket combs? Why not? How about issues with rare, Z-shaped binding (think tiny, literary accordion) or a cigar box full of stories? Absolutely.

In 2001, McSweeney’s published its first novel: Lawrence Krauser’s [i]Lemon[/i], which came with a cover that the author personally illustrated. Within a few years, the roster included Jonathan Lethem, Neal Pollack, Nick Hornby, David Byrne, Eggers and William T. Vollmann.

But that’s not all, as infomercial announcers are so fond of saying. In 2003, McSweeney’s launched [i]The Believer[/i], an alternative monthly edited by Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida. Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine, followed a few years later.

[i]Art of McSweeney’s [/i]chronicles the whole story. At a time when both literary journals and publishers are struggling to sell books and stay afloat, the McSweeney’s empire flourishes by constantly raising expectations about what books are, what a journal is. They manage to glorify reading while delighting in the printed word, rather than finding ways to transmit them electronically. At McSweeney’s, it’s all about the book, and Chronicle’s [i]Art of McSweeney’s[/i] is a handsome, well-wrought history.