Timeline Regained

Note Book BY Jeff Nunokawa. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 360 pages. $29.

Princeton English professor Jeff Nunokawa has five thousand Facebook friends. I am one of them. If you are one of the other 4,999, it may be because you know his scholarly writings, such as The Afterlife of Property (1994) or Tame Passions of Wilde (2003). More likely, though, you’ve been drawn in by the brief, sometimes enigmatic meditations—Nunokawa calls them essays—he has been publishing daily on the social-networking site since 2007, a selection of which he’s now gathered in print as Note Book. The structure of Nunokawa’s daily entry is usually fivefold: a numbered title, followed by a quotation, often literary, then a commentary on the quotation—though the relation of the commentary to its text can be oblique—and finally a “note,” often taking the form of another, much briefer and even fragmentary quotation, and an image. For this book, most of the images have been omitted (I don’t miss them). But the consistent structure barely masks the mercurial nature of Nunokawa’s thinking.

Part of what makes Nunokawa’s writing on Facebook so striking is precisely its inaptness for the medium. He never overshares, and his posts couldn’t be further from clickbait. His tone is intimate—but in the sense of intimation. Names are not named—other than those of the writers he loves to quote, George Eliot above all—and although obscure hurts and anxieties are regularly evoked (“It’s not so much that I can’t see any hope: it’s more like I can’t see much of anything to hope for”), they are not specified or explained. I imagine Nunokawa to be a wonderful teacher, in part because his prose is permeated by something like the vague unhappiness of adolescence; his freshmen must sense in him a cognate heart. In the foreword, titled “Initial Public Offering,” Nunokawa claims to have found an “illuminated public sphere” of interlocutors online, and I don’t doubt it, but he addresses us—or rather the “you” to whom his writings return—by addressing himself and the books he loves. After all, “Those people you love: you were never really with them, not in any way you could ever say for sure. It was more like being with a book you read when you were really young, all about how as soon as you figure out what you’re missing, you’re halfway home to finding it.”

Note Book shows how old forms of writing, even nearly forgotten ones, can thrive in the digital age. For what it most resembles are the “commonplace books” that many educated people maintained from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century—personal compendiums of excerpts from literature, often with commentaries. They were so widely used that the philosopher John Locke wrote a how-to book about making them; the last notable example of one may have been W. H. Auden’s, published in 1970 as A Certain World. There is only one difference, though it is crucial: Traditional commonplace books were arranged under subject headings, so that their authors could use them as reference sources, whereas Nunokawa’s book maintains the chronological—that is to say, conceptually arbitrary—order of his musings. He quotes Susan Sontag on Walter Benjamin: “He liked finding things where nobody was looking.”

That freewheeling structure is important, because it allows the associative, even distracted nature of his thinking to remain untrammeled, and it justifies Nunokawa’s calling these writings essays, by which he means to evoke the likes of Montaigne and Bacon, both of whom he cites. Oddly enough, it’s Nunokawa’s soothing, sometimes even bland tone that seems to allow him to boldly leap from one idea to another—although at times his consolatory bromides grate; I can follow his comparison of Shakespeare’s Ariel to “a poem or a page or a play or a pool that prepares its pupil to navigate the sea of tears that surrounds us,” but when he adds the advice “to remember what those like him have to teach you, and then, no matter how dark and stormy, you’ll always make it back to where you have to be,” I have to wince. Luckily, it doesn’t happen too often.

Note Book is not only a compendium of readings but a meditation on what reading is, and what it can do. It’s about teaching, too, and about love, and in every case the question returns: In a work of literature, who is being addressed? It’s also very much a book about finding the quantities and ratios of things that are naturally unquantifiable. In an entry about Milton, Nunokawa ponders how “some of us who know a lot less classical literature than Milton are still hoping to get a little more out of the little we do know of it. Personally, I’m actually hoping that it will, a little, improve my disposition.” All that lessness and littleness, though—those small adjustments of one’s relations to the “never enough”—turns out to be a way of coping with the great Miltonic all: “all our woe.”

But what woe, you might wonder, does someone like Nunokawa, with his comfortable and useful life at Princeton, have to cope with? Well, everybody experiences some—show a little empathy, won’t you? Still, the great woe that preoccupies Nunokawa is one he hasn’t yet had to face. Note Book strongly establishes its author as—like Proust and Barthes, whom he cites, and Albert Cohen, whom he doesn’t—one of the great mama’s boys of literature. The author’s mother is (aside from the writer himself) the only real character in the book, and she’s drawn vividly enough that I’ll admit to having been shocked when I imagined her reading passages like the one in which her son reveals the real burden of his book: “Imagine preparing for your mother’s death by means of a record of some lost time, with her as its sometimes secret center.” Loss is inevitable, but does prepping for it really make it any easier to bear?

Barry Schwabsky’s most recent book is Trembling Hand Equilibrium (Black Square Editions, 2015).