None of the previous 48 entries in the Library section of this magazine have dealt with what is commonly referred to as a “coffee table book”. Today we rectify such omission by showcasing a massive, recent, and by all standards, very desirable book from Taschen, the legendary German publishing house.
But what is a “coffee table book”? Unsurprisingly, there is a Wikipedia article that explains the concept:
A coffee table book, also known as a cocktail table book, is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose purpose is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one entertains guests and from which it can serve to inspire conversation or pass the time. Subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial (a photo-book). Pages consist mainly of photographs and illustrations, accompanied by captions and small blocks of text, as opposed to long prose.
Yes, that is right. “The Computer” by Jens Müller and Julius Wiedemann, released in May 2023 by Taschen, fits the description above perfectly well. It also is a massive book, weighing 3.8 kilos (or 8.3 pounds for our readers stuck with an obsolete measurement system) and measures 26 centimeters wide (10 inches), 37 centimeters high (15 inches), and 5 centimeters deep (2 inches).
I visited in 2014 a former New York Taschen pop-up bookstore on Madison Avenue, between the 77th and 78th streets (it does not exist anymore; the current Taschen Shop is in the Meatpacking District), and can confirm that this is, by far, not the biggest coffee table book available in their collection. Vanity Fair magazine famously showcased in 2014 an Annie Leibovitz book by Taschen. Said book, at 50 x 70 x 8 cm (20 x 27 x 3 in), came bundled with its own stand, “so you can look at it without breaking your back,” according to Vanity Fair.
(Speaking about Annie Leibovitz, I happen to own the much smaller but equally wonderful “Wonderland”, edited by Phaidon, another editor of beautiful coffee-table books.)
Without reaching such dimensions, and thankfully without breaking neither your back nor your wallet, “The Computer” is as gorgeous as it is unwieldy. Its almost 500 pages, of impeccable glossy paper, retrace the impact of the computer as a vector of social change. Be sure to enjoy it on your couch or sitting on a table. You have been warned.
This is something significant to consider: the book is less about computers themselves as objects, although many of them are prominently displayed in stunning detail, but more about the consequences of their appearance on human society since the second half of the 20th century.
Taschen books deal with artistic matters, most of the time becoming works of art in their own right. It is hard to convey the sensations provided by this book; to give you an idea, opening the cover of the book reveals a two-page spread photograph of Alan Turing’s Colossus computer, the one used at Bletchley Park to defeat the Germans during World War II. To transform such a computer, with such a belligerent story behind it, into a work of art, is a trick that only Taschen could possibly pull off.
The author and editor of “The Computer” divided the history of our favorite machines in five sections: The Beginnings, from antiquity to 1944; The Mainframe Age, until 1973; The Personal Computer Age, until 1993; The Internet Age, until 2005, and finally The All-Digital Age, covering the rise and spread of the smartphone. It is not hard to imagine that a future edition of this book could include a sixth section, “The AI Age”, which arguably started with the release of ChatGPT and its associated craze, roughly as this book was being sent to press.
Each section of the book contains not only the mandatory (and superb) pictures of the most representative machines of each era, but also images and descriptions of magazines, advertising, films, book covers, events, and more, all related to those same computers.
(There is, however, at least one glaring omission in my opinion: the first section of the book does not mention the Jaquet-Droz automata from 1770 as early examples of programmable entertainment machines, and even so, of a delicate nature and exquisite manufacture. Then again, I am being petty here. Sorry for the digression.)
Some pages have particularly triggered the neurons of this author.
A two-page spread photograph of a “computer room” in 1924, filled with female “computers” in the U.S. Treasury on pages 68 and 69.
A whole page (151) dedicated to Paul Rand‘s IBM logo, and its use in various pieces of packaging.
Speaking about Paul Rand, a screenshot of the NeXTSTEP operating system on page 309.
And speaking of IBM, the 5150 featured on page 255.
A colorful set of first generation iMac G3s featured (ironically enough) on page 386.
The Apollo 11 computer (including Margaret Hamilton‘s iconic photograph) on page 183.
On page 391, a sample of David Carson‘s advertising campaign (a staple of 1990s graphic design) for Microsoft Office.
And so on and so forth. The basic idea of this book is to let yourself go; just open it on any page, and flip pages backward or forward; let your fingers take you anywhere in it, without order or priority. Learn about any computer system or moment in history as you sip a glass of your preferred beverage, either hot or cold, with or without alcohol. Change your perspective, see things differently. (And, to be honest, the same procedure applies to any book in the Taschen catalog, with similarly wonderful results.)
No other book shows computers, our so loved and so hated companions at work or leisure, as objects of desire as this book does. Well, with maybe one exception: MIT’s outstanding (and not as unwieldy) “Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation”, a 2020 book by Alex Wiltshire and John Short.
Cover image by the author.