Thoughtful social media posts stand out in print
Note Book By Jeff Nunokawa Princeton University Press, 360pp, $71 (HB)
It surely says something about the resilience of the printed book that we should be responding to a radical new use of online social media only when it appears printed in ink on paper. Then again, Note Book is the handsome record of a project consciously poised between codex and pixel. The physical manifestation of a yearslong experiment by Princeton University lecturer Jeff Nunokawa, Note Book is just that: a book made out of daily Facebook posts, written using the platform’s rarely used Notes feature, which allows users to write at length.
What makes Nunokawa’s efforts so different is their crafted quality and the reservoir of intelligence, knowledge and feeling from which they are drawn.
Each day the Hawaiian-born specialist in English literature uses a similar, tripartite method: beginning with a quotation — something related to his research or teaching, or a book picked up at random — and then riffing for a sentence, a paragraph, a page on it, before appending a footnote and an accompanying image (only a few of which, sadly, are reproduced in print form).
So it is that a quotation about Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy becomes a point of departure for a memory of watching the John Cusack romcom Say Anything, which is accompanied by a footnote containing the final lines of The Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.
Meanwhile, note 4474 starts with a brief line from Jane Austen’s Emma (‘‘the small band of true friends ... the perfect happiness of the union’’) and then shades into recollections of a recent discussion between the author and his mother about what heaven might look like before concluding with a line from philosopher Stanley Cavell about Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s.
The effect is like sitting in front of a threepart mirror, with each reflection providing a different aspect of a single perceiving subject. On the page, it recalls a mix of old-fashioned commonplace book (lots of Romantic poetry and prose, lines from 19th-century novels and German sociologists), a personal diary (old boyfriends and the failures of love are a recurrent theme, and surely no thinker since Roland Barthes has fixed so firmly on his mother) and a series of philosophical fragments reminiscent of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.
Take note 4196, ‘‘Beyond Display’’, which opens with a quotation from Thomas De Quincey’s Literary Reminiscences: Not that the reader is to suppose in Southey a showy master of rhetoric and colloquial sword-play, seeking to strike and dazzle by his brilliant hits and evasions. The very opposite is the truth. He seeks, indeed, to be effective, not for the sake of display, but as the readiest means of retreating from display, and the necessity for display.
‘‘I wonder how much the desire to dazzle is actually a forgotten hunger for a calmer kind of human contact,’’ responds Nunokawa, ‘‘simmered beyond recognition by the fear that no one really likes what’s really raw… Some of the best times I have with you are when I’m really tired, and my whole fleet of rhetorical devices and other vessels for fancy flying pretty much grounded ...’’
Of course, the relinquishment of rhetorical performance is a literary performance in itself, as Nunokawa, a subtle scholar, knows only too well. But understanding this gives us a strong hint of what he is attempting to do in Note Book. His tongue-in-cheek introduction (he calls it an ‘‘Initial Public Offering’’) describes a writing process almost designed to nudge the author out of official modes of communication, traditional critical forms and established means of address, towards something at once more polished and more plain.
‘‘Over time,’’ he writes, ‘‘I have grown closer and closer in these notes to the texts that I take up in them: so much so that I have wound up mixing them more and more with stories of my own life ... [They] have grown less and less formal expositions and explications of the texts where they got their start, and more and more emulations and extensions of them.’’
The evolution is important. It shows Nunokawa has been able to use unique aspects of emerging digital mediums for communication to link his contemporary essays in criticism with a far older canon.
Like Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin and Barthes — the ‘‘great ancestors of this little adventure in the essay form’’ — Nunokawa’s pieces use the personal as a paradoxical means of grasping universals. They also venture to find words that ‘‘enshrine and encourage some someway brave, though somewhat fractured parts of the lives that we somehow lead, and lead together’’.
I am not sure Nunokawa’s essays, dazzling and heartfelt as they can be, will survive as de Quincey’s have done. But what Note Book shows us is that the very digital platforms we decry for the way they aggregate us only to isolate us, dumb us down, and mine our innermost hearts and minds for commercial gain, may also be used to reverse the current.
Nunokawa’s essays should leave us hopeful that every new iteration of social media is built by us and merely awaits infusions of subversive thought, rough and ready democracy, and moral fervour. It is a platform in which empathy may be as important as commerce, if we desire it, and where an individual may reveal themselves in such a way that individual passion, pain and uncertainty become part of a grand commons. ‘‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition,’’ wrote Montaigne. And every woman too.
Facebook can serve as a platform for erudite essays, too