An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.

How?

JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.

Who?

JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. Poets.org offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:

 

On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems

Interview with n+1 co-founder and PUP author Mark Greif

As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?

The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:

You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?

MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section (of the book?) many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.

Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?

MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation (though maybe not of literary production). And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.

So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?

MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They (the spaces?) set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.

Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?

MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier (does earlier modify 1930s, i.e. 1931 vs. 1937, or are you using it to mean the entire decade was earlier than the post-WWII starting point of your book?)1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.

What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?

MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.

I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity (even if only among an elite population), which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.

You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?

MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?

Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity (or the archive, or the leisure of future historians) will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Kitsch

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To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. This second week in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Kitsch (German):

ENGLISH      junk art, garish art, kitsch

The word Kitsch is German in origin and had previously been translated into French as art de pacotille (junk art) or art tape-á-l’oeil (garish art), but the original term has now become firmly established in all European languages. Used as an adjective, kitsch or kitschy qualifies cultural products intended for the masses and appreciated by them….As a kind of debased popularization, it offers a decadent model that is all the more alluring for being so easily accessible. This is, at least, what its detractors say.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

Two hundred and thirty-eight candles for the late Jane Austen, who was born today in 1775. Happy birthday, dear Jane!

Wondering how to celebrate the Pride and Prejudice writer’s special day? Luckily, PUP has compiled a crop of all things Austen. Our list even includes a word with our resident Jane Austen enthusiast and author of Jane Austen, Game Theorist, scholar Michael Chwe.

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

ALL THINGS AUSTEN

For the competitive types (you know who you are):

Jane Austen, a game theorist? Michael Chwe argues that Austen’s books are teeming with examples of her classic characters using game theory in their decisions. Check out his latest interview, where he makes his case for why Miss Austen’s work is one of game theory’s true scientific predecessors. Here is a preview:

I think that Austen’s literary worlds are worlds where […] you think about yourself in terms of decisions. Other people’s worlds might think in terms of visuals or characters or history, but when you think about Austen’s worlds, it’s about […] what would you do? What would you think about? What connections would you make?

To find out more, read a sample chapter of Chwe’s book.

For the visual folks:

Check out this visual, used by Chwe. Mr. Darcy makes everything more complicated, doesn’t he?

“Elizabeth, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with her own feelings, was perfectly aware that, had she known nothing of Darcy, she could have borne the dread of Lydia’s infamy somewhat better.  It would have spared her, she thought, one sleepless night out of two.”

Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen graphFor the game lovers:

Jane, Plain No More” — This clever New York Times article highlights the year’s mentions of Jane Austen, complete with an Austen-themed board game.

For the brainiacs:

The New York Times also designed a Jane Austen quiz, which boasts that it will “separate the Lizzys from the Lydias.” How many answers can you get right, PUP readers? Let us know your score!

For the book worms:

If your copy of Mansfield Park is worn from your many re-reads, take a look at Princeton University Press’s list of Austen-related books.

For the ultimate fans (we’re right there with you!):

Grab your bonnet and step back in time with Ever, Jane, a virtual Jane Austen online game. As the website states, this is not a game of “kill or be killed, but invite or be invited.” The prototype is available for download on their website. Game on.

 

PUP News of the World

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Welcome to the next edition of our brand new series, PUP News of the World! Every week we will be posting a round-up of all of our most exciting national AND international reviews/interviews/events/articles, etc. that took place in the last week.


http://press.princeton.edu/images/k9383.gifThis week our article of the week comes from Financial Times! In the spirit of the holidays, the FT has posted a list of the best books of 2013 as chosen by FT writers and guests, including six Princeton University Press titles!
In the category of Business, Marc Levinson’s book, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, was chosen by none other than the Chairman of Microsoft, Bill Gates! Of the book, he said, “[This book] was published in 2006 but I read it just this year, around the time I visited the Panama Canal. A book about metal boxes may not sound like a thrill ride, but Levinson keeps it moving with compelling characters and surprising details. He unravels the history of how the shipping container revolutionised the way the world does business, affecting everything from shipping times to the depth of ports. A helpful guide to one of the cornerstones of globalisation. I won’t look at a cargo ship in quite the same way again.”
In the category of Economics, three of our books were chosen by Martin Wolf. The first, The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by Anat Admati & Martin Hellwig, Wolf called “[T]he most important book to have come out of the financial crisis”. The second, Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change by Edmund Phelps was called “[E]xtraordinary… Phelps has addressed some of the big questions about our future”. Last but not least, the third selection was The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present by Paul Seabright, which Wolf says “With characteristic brilliance, Seabright uses biology, sociology, anthropology and economics to explain the war of the sexes”.
In the category of History, Tony Barber chose two PUP titles. Barber called the first Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History by Derek Sayer, “[T]houghtful, witty and well-illustrated”. He also selected Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods:John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order, of which he said, “Steil’s book is an object lesson in how to make economic history entertaining and instructive”.
Lastly, in the category of Art, Jackie Wullschlager chose T.J. Clark’s Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, calling it “[A] brilliant art-historical analysis… The most original book on Picasso for years”.


j10074[1]Robert Herritt of the Daily Beast reviewed Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds, calling it “[I]mpressive…[A] walking tour of moral philosophy organized around one of the most well-known thought experiments of the last half century….By weaving together abstract principles, biographical sketches, historical examples, and trendy research in this just-so way, Edmonds has figured out how to illustrate the dimensions and consequences of moral decision-making without sacrificing entertainment value…[A] carefully executed book”.


There was a review in The Guardian for Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett, in which Diarmaid MacCulloch said “… there is much to enjoy in the array of human behaviour, sacred and by our standards profane or just downright mad, chronicled in Bartlett’s excellent study.”


cookingAnne Kingston of Maclean’s wrote a feature on Cooking for Crowds: 40th Anniversary Edition by Merry White this week, saying “Recipes ahead of the curve 40 years ago—dirty rice, pork vindaloo— remain au courant; others—Swedish meatballs, Charlotte Malakoff au chocolat—exude a retro ’70s vibe that’s also au courant. Prep details for six, 12, 20 and 50 servings of each recipe are provided. Practical advice abounds, including not to multiply powerful spices like other ingredients… [Cooking for Crowds] remains a boffo resource for those hankering to make chicken Bengal for 12 or baklava for 50.”


Nicholas Kristof mentioned The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton in his New York Times Sunday Review column discussing foreign aid this past weekend.


Joan Acocella reviewed The Book of Job: A Biography by Mark Larrimore in The New Yorker.


Gordon Marino had an Op-Ed  piece about Nelson Mandela and Kierkegaard on the Chronicle’s “The Conversation” blog, which mentions The Quotable Kierkegaard, Marino’s most recent publication. Similarly, Marino had an Op-Ed in The New York Times this week in which he discusses Vitali Klitschko’s run for the Ukranian presidency.


David Wessel recently wrote an article about The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance by Eswar S. Prasad in the Wall Street Journal, calling it “[A] surprising argument….[L]ucid….”. Prasad also did an interview with Wessel, which can be found here. Lastly, Prasad wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about the argument his new book makes.


What W. H. Auden Can Do for You by Alexander McCall Smith was reviewed by Times Higher Education this week. Chris Jones called it  “charming”.


On a very international note, Edmund Phelps was interviewed about his book, Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change, by Die Welt (The World), a German national daily newspaper, this past weekend. Phelps also did a Q&A recently with Dylan Matthews that appeared on WashingtonPost.com’s Wonkblog in which they discuss his book, plus Arnold Kling reviewed Mass Flourishing on his blog, Econlib, saying “Phelps has given us a clear warning of the dangers of corporatism. I hope that more people hear and heed the warning.”


Sides_TheGamble3National Journal published their featured list of “The Best Political Books We Read in 2013” this week, which included The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by John Sides & Lynn Vavreck. Of this selection, Steven Shepard said, “What really mattered in last year’s elections? George Washington University professor John Sides and UCLA professor Lynn Vavreck, in a remarkably fast turnaround for an academic work, applied social science to the developments of last year’s presidential election in The Gamble. It turns out that the events journalists described in real time (including this one) weren’t as important as they were made out to be. And Sides and Vavreck provide an important reality check that observers should heed before the daily doings of 2016 consume us all.”


Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll, was recently listed in The Atlantic’s Best Book’s of the Year roundup. Alexis Madrigal said, “If books can be tools, Addiction by Design is one of the foundational artifacts for understanding the digital age—a lever, perhaps, to pry ourselves from the grasp of the coercive loops that now surround us.”


With Christmas rapidly approaching, Irish Independent put together a Christmas books round-up, which included The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil, which they referred to as a “masterful account”.


The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century by Angela E. Stent was recently reviewed in the Kirkus Reviews. In the article they called it “[L]ucid….[R]eadable and sometimes surprising…..”.


Times Higher Education reviewed The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runicman this week, calling it “[I]nsightful”, and saying that “Runciman has written a brilliant book in which both the prose and the ideas sparkle”.


Lastly, a number of PUP books are featured in Bloomberg Businessweek’s best books of 2013 feature, “Buffett, Slim, Greenspan, El-Erian, Lew Pick Best Books of 2013.” The list includes Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, The Banker’s New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by Anat Admati & Martin Hellwig, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Drèze & Amartya Sen, and The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil.


COMING SOON: An interactive map of the world where you can check out all of our reviews from multiple countries and continents, sorted by publication.

New Literature Catalog!

We invite you to be among the first to check out our new literature catalog! http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/lit13.pdf

Of particular interest is the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which no reader or writer of poetry will want to be without. Also be sure to note Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste, co-winner of the 2011 Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize. The catalog also features our Essays in the Arts series including Alexander Nemerov’s stunning Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s and Leonard Barkan’s examination of the deliciously ambiguous history of the relationship between words and pictures, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures.

Forthcoming titles you’ll want to add to your reading list include the expertly rendered Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, Reiner Stach’s riveting Kafka biographies, and Ruth R. Wisse’s fascinating No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our literature titles, sign up with ease here: http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/ Your email address will remain confidential!

We’ll see everyone at the meeting of the Modern Language Association January 3-6 in Boston, MA. Come visit us at booth 508! Be sure to stop by at 4:30 p.m. Friday, January 4th for a celebratory reception with the editors of the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics—the most comprehensive and authoritative poetry reference for more than four decades. Wine and cheese will be served!