Is Twitter the enemy of self-expression?

Social media may have cultural relevance, but it's no good when everyone says the same thing.

There's a scene set in the near future in Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, in which a conversation between two people in a café becomes so awkward they conclude it via an instant-messaging service called T'ing, in which language is reduced to its most basic: 'GrAt. Il gt 2 wrk.' As one character remarks after the exchange, T'ing is "pure -- no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgements."

Whilst Egan understands what her character doesn't -- that even the most reduced linguistic exchanges cannot be "pure" -- the idea of appreciating social medias because they restrict self-expression is an interesting one in the context of our current eagerness to give sites such as Twitter increasing cultural relevance.

Last April the US Library of Congress announced tweets would be part of its archive, the Harvard professor Marjorie Garber recently noted that Twitter's "artificial limits on form [are] very good practice for writing and for reading", and James Poniewozik in TIME contextualised Twitter within "the history of literature [that] is the story of writers shaping their work to exploit technology."

Meanwhile in PORT magazine's inaugural issue this March, the journalist Ekow Eshun argued that Twitter is about creative self-expression, a place where "we curate our lives". He goes on, "people wanted to tell me that a 140-character limit is the enemy of good writing -- as if Hemingway or Carver or centuries of haikus hadn't made the case for concision."

The form may be similarly restrictive, but don't the how and why also define content? And Twitter's how and why is essentially anti-literary, anti-creative; Twitter is all about fitting in.

In literary Twitter circles, for example, clusters of publishers, authors, editors, journalists and agents build wide networks whose strength lies in blurring the distinction between professional contact and personal friend -- a blurring that makes group consensus all the more persuasive.

As Twitter's influence grows, instead of blithely thinking of it as a place of free expression, it might be a good time to wonder if the commingling of public and private realms doesn't potentially make expressing opinions more difficult?

Considered in this light, Twitter functions as banally as a school hierarchy: who to like, who not to, who you're allowed to criticise, who you can't etc. Whilst Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker last year enraged many with his claims that social networking was not instrumental to social change, his most salient point was that social media is "not the natural enemy of the status quo." Twitter relies on people's desire to be the same.

Nor is it really challenging from a linguistic perspective. Poniewozik writes, "Twitter is pure voice, an exercise in implying character through detail and tone", but the most striking thing about it is its uniformity of tone, how difficult it is to create any distinctive voice in its tight-lipped text box. Tweets can cause misunderstandings aplenty, but there isn't much room for subtlety.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter itself seems comfortable with its functionality, its stated desire only to transmit information. On its homepage it says, with knowing simplicity: "Follow your interests". So should we be a little more aware of its limitations?

Eshun reflects that Twitter's "merging of public and private self [is] the defining condition of the hyper-mediated modern age." The key word in the sentence is "merging". Twitter splices together public and private spheres, and doesn't have time for doubt. This is its commercial strength, but its creative and cultural limitation.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times