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One English Professor's 3,200 Facebook Essays

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 23, 2011 11:45 AM

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Princeton English professor Jeff Nunokawa is famous on campus for being, more or less, the most dynamic man alive: an influential scholar of Victorian literature, he's also the super-social master of Princeton's Rockefeller College and a gifted, hyper-energetic teacher with a cult following. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the Nunokawa cult as an undergraduate.) Nunokawa has taken it over the top, though, with his newest project: he's written over 3,200 short essays using Facebook's "Notes" feature, on subjects as diverse as literature, television, and the Spanish soccer player Fernando Torres. They're read by academics around the world, one of whom explains in the Princeton Alumni Weekly that she joined Facebook just to get access to "Jeffbook."

Nunokawa started his essay series in 2005, after teaching a course called "The Form of the Essay." (He began with a response to Wittgenstein's famous assertion, “That about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”) Now he writes around an essay a day, often revising it and adding footnotes afterwards. The essays are meditative and exploratory, rather than argumentative; sometimes they address literary subjects, but often they branch out. (An essay from earlier this week was about an oceanside town Nunokawa visited while driving in Hawaii, where he grew up.) Many of the essays start from quotations: an essay begins with a quote from one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories ("If there is such a thing as truth, it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers...”), which starts Nunokawa writing about "the silent (or nearly so) subtlety of Truth during times of loud trouble."

Nunokawa doesn't think of his essays as adding up to a "blog"; he insists upon the "essay" form. In fact, his essays reveal, retrospectively, a missed opportunity in the world of internet writing. Blogs, which are now the default format for writing on the web, are personal, timely, and argumentative: one contributes to the blogosphere by making a point. Nunokawa's essays, by contrast, are more leisurely and less definitive, and untethered from other things on the web. Perhaps the fact that he writes for a (very broad) circle of friends on Facebook helps create the relaxed mood such explorations require. Taken together, they add up not to an extended argument, but to something like Pascal's Pensees -- a record of 3,200 contemplative moments, recorded for posterity and open for comment.

When he writes the essays, however, is anybody's guess. According to the P.A.W.,

Rumors about Nunokawa abound. Some people claim that he reads a book a day, others that he never sleeps. He can quote pages of poetry from memory. “He does an hour on the Stairmaster every day at a level that’s just ridiculous,” says [one undergraduate]. “I couldn’t last five minutes at the rate he’s going.”
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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