Pictures of Pages: Sharing books on Instagram

There are moments of technology use and communication that I want to preserve for the future, though they might be mundane.

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Last time: Algorithmic Dysphoria — When the recommendations are wrong

Around the year 1000, the writer Sei Shonagon, an attending lady of the Japanese Heian court in what is now Kyoto, kept a diary of mundane moments from her life. Not boring things, exactly, but anecdotes that sparkled with the particular beauty of mundanity, things that were representative of her existence in the world and her point of view. The result was The Pillow Book, a millennium-old blog that’s one of the cornerstones of Japanese literature. It’s not so serious in the writing itself, though.  

For example, Shonagon writes this in a list of “Dispiriting things”: 

“You’ve taken special care to send off a beautiful, carefully written letter, and you’re eagerly awaiting the reply – time passes, it seems awfully long in coming, and then finally your own elegantly folded or knotted letter is brought back, now horribly soiled and crumpled and with no sign remaining of the brush stroke that sealed it. ‘There was no one in’, you’re told, or ‘They couldn’t accept it on account of an abstinence.’ This is dreadfully dispiriting.”

The moment is at once foreign and totally relatable. Shonagon recounts a bunch of period-specific details: these days we don’t use elegant calligraphy or knot or seal our letters, nor do we refuse to accept letters because of astrological superstitions (well, maybe). Yet the frustration of not being able to send a message needs no explanation. Obviously, it sucks, whether it’s a thousand-year-old poem fragment or a text that never goes through circa 2019.

I was thinking of The Pillow Book in the context of writing about technology. In the little anecdote, Shonagon perfectly represented her experience of communication in her own era with such clarity that we can still understand it today, in translation. We’re missing a lot of context, of course, but the whiff of true feeling remains. It doesn’t matter so much that it’s anachronistic or that the medium has changed. It would be nice to document and share the particular feelings of digital communication in the same way, so that someone decades (let alone centuries) from now could get a sense of what it was like. 

Sei Shonagon today would be like: “tfw u know they have read receipts on and it never gets read 😭lmao fml”

This happens often enough in fiction; I think of the Gchat exchange in Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station or the epistolary emails in Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Through those narratives and characters we understand that digital communication is fragmented, not quite in real time, often filled with the projection of what the other person might say next. In those books, you can want to send an email but not be able to because there’s no internet, or decide not to send an email because the person you want to write to is in the next room, or project an image of being offline, and thus inaccessible, but actually chatting anyway. 

Nonfiction, less so, at least in the casual, sociable, charming way of The Pillow Book, in a mode that might actually be readable or desirable in the future. Maybe the future doesn’t care; maybe our moment is too temporary, too un-enduring to merit documentation like this. But Shonagon suggests otherwise. 

The moment that I wanted to document was laying on the couch late the other night reading a book before bed. I had started reading Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting, which is a collection of essayistic fragments on memory, each page-long entry building on the last. I read the bit in the photo at the top of this newsletter and it struck me—the image was so potent, an echo of the ur-myth that Hyde sketches out, that we are born by forgetting. 

I didn’t have to wait to talk to someone about it or to recommend the book. I grabbed my phone and took a photo of the page and put it in my Instagram story, a dimly lit image, a woven blanket behind the book on my knees. Instagram stories in particular enable this passive act of sharing: it’s not quite a text message but it’s targeted toward the audience following you, some of whom see it in more or less real time. Your lambent screen means you’re not alone; other people in other rooms will read the same page you’re reading through their phones, too. 

I really like Instagramming book pages. It’s faster than copying out a quote. You’re not editorializing or judging, just showing a glimpse. Like a Heian courtier quoting the right poem, it’s also showing off, displaying your taste to your social circle online and IRL. Maybe it’s a galley that no one else has yet or a particularly obscure library find. I once Instagrammed a diagram from The Tastemakers, a totally prescient book from the ‘50s that I knew would be a hit, and it was: I got a bunch of DMs asking for the source. (Which leads me to suggest that you always include the title in the image.) 

The intimate act of reading becomes a semi-public one, like we’re all on our couches at night reading together on quiet weeknights. Instagram stories let you see who watches your content (a detail that might not get passed on to future audiences) and so you’re also aware of who’s up with you, who’s looking at their phones, documenting a TV show, book, or sketch that they want to spread to the digital circle. More than anything it brings to mind another anachronistic digital experience, the AOL Instant Messenger window, where you could see a list of all your friends either waiting to be contacted or hidden behind an evocative away message that would pop up when you tried. And then maybe they would reply anyway.

I was just thinking about how in late high school or college, I used to worry that if I left my gmail window open in the browser for too long that the green light on gchat that meant I was actively online would stay lit for too long and people would think I was too nerdy. Now, online is the default condition and off is the exception. We always open our messages.

(An endnote: Anna Wiener’s great upcoming memoir, Uncanny Valley, gets around the problem of anachronism by not directly naming the Silicon Valley companies she’s writing about, but referring to them by epithets: “The Social Network that Everybody Hates,” etc.)