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Anderson: My Literary Twitter Experiment

I’m late to the Twitter party, but a few weeks ago I decided to start an experiment: tweet the best sentence I read every day. (NB: Someone else had already claimed my actual name, so I had to go with my alter ego: ShamBlanderson.) “Best,” in this context, can mean almost anything: funny, beautiful, enlightening, stylistically amazing. My first tweet was a factoid from a New Yorker story about Whole Foods: “The key variable in deciding where to put the new stores is the number of college graduates within a 16-minute drive.” (I love the specificity of sixteen minutes.)

A couple of times, I’ve had to resist the urge to just comb through my favorite punchy books (Emerson, Amis, William James) and compile a twenty-first century micro-Bartlett’s. The object is to use Twitter as a daily note-taking system: to document, organically, the various text-streams I actually pay attention to — novels, magazines, blogs, whatever. When Salinger died I went back to read Nine Stories and tweeted this sentence from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”: “She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.” One day, doing some background reading for a review, I discovered a sentence from Adorno that seemed like a direct comment on Twitter itself (or the Kindle, or blogs, or Sarah Palin’s memoir): “In a world where books have long lost all likeness to books, the real book can no longer be one.”

A couple of times, I’ve had to resist the urge to just comb through my favorite punchy books (Emerson, Amis, William James) and compile a twenty-first century micro-Bartlett’s. The object is to use Twitter as a daily note-taking system: to document, organically, the various text-streams I actually pay attention to — novels, magazines, blogs, whatever. When Salinger died I went back to read Nine Stories and tweeted this sentence from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”: “She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.” One day, doing some background reading for a review, I discovered a sentence from Adorno that seemed like a direct comment on Twitter itself (or the Kindle, or blogs, or Sarah Palin’s memoir): “In a world where books have long lost all likeness to books, the real book can no longer be one.”

Some people have described Twitter as anti-literary, but I find that it makes me pay attention in interesting ways. It can put a spotlight on throwaway lines I might otherwise have lost forever — e.g., the mantra recited every morning by the main character in Peter Bognanni’s forthcoming novel The House of Tomorrow: “I will use my mind, not just my regular brain lobes.” (I like that more every time I read it.) Or Elif Batuman’s observation (technically two sentences) about Tolstoy’s house: “Everything here was a museum. The snakes are the genetic snake museum.”

The biggest challenge in maintaining a literary-ish Twitter account is the problem everyone has with Twitter: keeping sentences to the insanely short limit of 140 characters. It turns out, in fact, that “sentence” is a bit of a misnomer — often I end up tweeting the best 140-character verbal clump I run across, which is sometimes just part of a sentence, or even a single phrase or image. For example, I’m currently reading Bleak House, and it’ll surprise nobody that Dickens’s late style doesn’t lend itself to tweets. I spent probably ten minutes last night trying to whittle this one down to 140 characters: “Guster holds certain loose atoms of an idea (picked up at Tooting, where they were found floating among the orphans), that there is buried money underneath the cellar, guarded by an old man with a white beard, who cannot get out for seven thousand years, because he said the Lord’s Prayer backwards.” My best shot — “ ... the cellar, guarded by an old man w a white beard, who cannot get out for 7K yrs, bc he said the Lord’s Prayer backwards” — was still, unfortunately, way too long. Probably I need a vlog.