Book: You should start with the book, of course you should. My press will appreciate you buying the book, which is important, since the book-writing drives (to some extent) the web-writing here (though there's not much profit in either, the theoretical possibility of profit is still a motive), and I think of this site as a little concoction you can pour over the artifact of the book. So the book is the delicious candy center, and the website the sugary coating. Oh, wait, that doesn't make as much sense as I had hoped.
How about if you listen to the experts? Here's why you should buy it:
"Ander Monson is a philosopher bard, a genre hacker, a truth forensics specialist, a plainspoken word prophet. Vanishing Point cements his reputation as one of America's riskiest and most provocative writers." --Heidi Julavits
"A master at transforming the personal into the impersonal/collective, or vice versa, Ander Monson has caught in his net many playful, piquant speculations, facts, insights, and memories, on their way (so he believes) to oblivion. Monson is an essayist for our technology-besotted, self-unstable times." --Phillip Lopate
But the book is a book. It's designed; that is, the design means in the book. Maybe not overtly in all of the essays, but certainly in some. If we writers want to keep making books that people will read as books, I think we should be thinking about the artifact of the book when we're writing the book. Okay, not all of us will want to--or will be able to--think about design when we're thinking about writing, though the processes are not all that different when you think about it. They both give form to the unformed. They're both rhetoric on some level. Okay, so maybe the initial writing, that is, the generating, is a different ballgame. But revision's like design, isn't it? We're looking at this given text and finding ways to slim it, to trim it, to make it bigger, to make it work better on the medium of the reader's brain (via the medium of the page or the website).
Maybe design's more like dressing up to go to the club, or to seek a mate, or to go to church, or to get a job.
This, however, is not a book. It's designed, too, but it's far more limited by the present capabilities of HTML. I'm composing this in Dreamweaver, which is a nice piece of software, but--unlike, say, the printed page, which looks more or less the same to everyone--how it looks depends partly on the reader (if it is ugly, it is probably your fault). What technology does she bring to the page (which isn't really a page at all--unlike the printed page, this page is rendered through a series of instructions and code, so if you really want to see the page, you have to look at the source code, and, going deeper, really you should be looking at it in the original binary if you want to see how your technology sees it? If she's looking at it in Lynx, that obscure early browser, then it will look much different than if you're trying it out in the new sexy Firefox (my fav) which, by the time this website is live (being March 2010, a month before the book's publication), will probably be on its way to being obsolete.
The lack of control over typography and design online (even the ability to reliably flow text around images, and setup columns and connected text boxes, which is simple enough to do in InDesign) drives designers nuts. It drives control freaky people nuts. It can drive me nuts too. Luckily, we're getting closer. I read an interesting Slate article on the new horizon in typography [here] this morning. And downloaded the new Firefox to get browserlicious so I can see the new font tech [here]. Which is exciting. Maybe this is the equivalent of getting reading glasses, and all of a sudden, the page comes in sharper. Or you get the digital converter box for your old TV and boom, epiphany: beauty.
Except design's usually in the hand of the designer, not the writer. Probably it's for the best since most of us suck at design (frankly, a lot of us suck at writing). But we live in a society where we are all increasingly insulated from the actual operation of most of the things we deal with. Can you switch out the motherboard in your computer? Can you open up the hood on your car and track the engine failure codes? Are you even aware of something as simple as the font this or any other text is written in?
(Aside: a great Yahoo! Answers thread asks: "What font was the We the People in the Constitution written in? I need to know for a paper.")
We are atop such complexity. It's glorious, yes. I'm not advocating any kind of back to the land off-the-griddity. I grew up on a farm. I wasn't fond of its actual operations. I like technology. I like complexity. I like to be atop all of this. But the desire's there to know what's underneath it.
Of course it's not reasonable to know everything about how it is we live. But don't you want to get inside some of it? You can start by looking at the bindings of your books, the seams on your clothing. You can start by bringing a screwdriver with you and unscrewing whatever panels you can find to see what's underneath. Now we're essaying. Now we're getting somewhere.