Books Abounding: The sublime tweets of Erik Kwakkel

As a mode of forced concision, Twitter rewards the pithy, and there are many artistsjournalists, comedians, and even athletes who have emerged as real adepts of the form since the advent of what the American Journalism Review in 2009 called ”the Twitter Explosion.” Yet there are some figures who have transcended the laconic idiom of Twitter into another realm entirely. These are the true geniuses of the Twitterverse. Rather than tweeting content that could just as easily go on Facebook or a blog post, these contributors have discovered ways of adapting their expertise into the 140-character form in such a way that the content they share seems to exist in a kind of intrinsic relation to the form of the tweet. An example of this medium-message organicism is the Twitter stream of musician Imogen Heap (@imogenheap) of Frou Frou and Acacia fame (she has also collaborated with Jeff Beck). While using the medium to stay in touch with fans and note upcoming appearances, Heap also tweets fragments of ambient sounds and her own improv that can be heard as short-form audio commentary on her more extended work.

Another such Twitter genius is Erik Kwakkel, a scholar of book history at Leiden University. Kwakkel’s day job involves the teaching of paleography (the study of old handwriting) and codicology (the study of old books) to students at all levels, at Leiden and elsewhere. His scholarly publications include several collaborative volumes on medieval books and readers as well as numerous articles on book history. Kwakkel’s Twitter feed (@erik_kwakkel) regularly provides links to ongoing discussions of medieval books, digital archives newly on line, and classroom exercises organized by himself and others (including the live tweeting of a hunt for manuscript fragments). He engages in regular Twitter conversations with colleagues in the field, sharing and commenting on links and images along with Sarah Peverley (@Sarah_Peverley), Kathryn Rudy (@katerudy1), Johan Oosterman (@JohanOosterman), Elaine Treharne (@ETreharne), Andrew Prescott (@Ajprescott), and other members of an emerging community of early book enthusiasts on Twitter.

Since he began tweeting earlier this year, however, Kwakkel has leveraged his professional devotion to old books into a form of digital curation that represents one of the most consistently riveting entrees into the world of medieval manuscripts. His Twitter stream enlists images of and from medieval books–not just beautiful illuminations and grotesque marginalia but unusual scripts, scribal corrections, parchment repairs, mutilated pages and codices, binding fragments–to open fascinating windows onto the past while jarring his viewers with the simultaneously alien and intimate glimpses of bookish life they afford. Even experienced scholars of medieval books will delight in Kwakkel’s ability to unstraighten familiar sight-lines, both on ourselves and on the past–and always with a wry humor befitting the subject (“Thanks for sending,” he writes to one of his correspondents, “the worm holes went down very well here in Leiden.”)

Crucial to the creative artistry of Kwakkel’s Twitter stream is the visual mechanism of the individual tweet itself, which initially hides the tweeted picture behind a coded link that must be clicked to reveal the image glossed in the text. This allows his 140-character tweets to prepare you (or, just as often–and this is part of the point–not) for the glimpses of bookish ingenuity you’re about to see. While I have expanded some of his tweets below to illustrate this aspect of his curation, I have left others in situ so readers can experience them as they would within their own streams.

A technical note: the expanded tweets below (i.e. the longer ones that show the photos) are ‘live,’ though you don’t have to have a Twitter account to make them work. Just hover and click at will, whether to link to the tweeted image, read the reactions to some of Kwakkel’s contributions by his followers, or, if you have an account, follow Kwakkel yourself (highly recommended). I couldn’t figure out how to embed non-expanded tweets, so I’ve simply inserted screen shots that are then linked to the expanded versions; the effect is pretty much the same. If anyone knows how to embed non-expanded tweets I’d appreciate an e-mail or comment with instructions.

Kwakkel’s tweets are invariably written so as to lure the reader into clicking on the image (the ‘twit-pic’ in current lingo). Intrigue, mystery, humor, violence, eroticism: Kwakkel uses all of these appeals to our baser instincts to get his followers looking at a medieval image as quickly as possible. This is the mark of the Master Tweeter, of course: the ability to capture the viewer’s attention in the midst of a highly saturated digital environment, inspiring that momentary pause and click-through to the content beneath.

Here are five typical examples from Kwakkel’s feed, the first three expanded, the third and fourth not:

As this last example shows, Kwakkel’s gentle humor invites you in, and the linked image then jars you with the incongruous: in this case, the notion that a screenfold manuscript would cause a viewer motion sickness. (Here as elsewhere in his stream you often have to stare at the image for a moment before getting the joke.) Kwakkel’s quirky commentary can sometimes approach the idiom of surrealism or Dada in its disjunctive sensibility. This is particularly true when he tweets images on theological and religious themes, whether Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden…



…or Jonah and the Whale…



…or a jaw-droppingly literalist interpretation of a Psalm verse…



…or David and Goliath:



Kwakkel’s most hilarious tweets inflect medieval visual culture through the droll touch of the master ironist. If you’re drinking coffee, swallow before you click this one:


Here’s an expanded tweet on the same theme:

And a tweeted image of maritime militarism:

And another of appellants at court:


As all of these examples illustrate, one of Kwakkel’s accomplishments as a tweeter of book history is his brilliant skew(er)ing of modern perspective, an ability to find the light or dark humor in the codicological truism. I’m thinking here of his marvelous Halloween series posted just this fall. I won’t give anything away, but if you click through the eight tweets in the sequence (four of them are below) you’ll see how Kwakkel plays on the material substrate of medieval books (animal skin, internal writing, body-as-book, page-as-flesh) with just the sense of irony and empathy the subject demands.

I could go on. Indeed, one of the problems with blogging about a visually rich subject like this one is that you want to post and comment on everything–but Erik Kwakkel’s tweets speak for themselves, and the best way to appreciate their effect is simply to follow his feed at @erik_kwakkel. Be prepared to lose a few hours of your day, though. Kwakkel has discovered a breathtakingly original way of bringing the history of the book to a new kind of life. This is digital curation at its best, and a sign of great things to come in book history.

Books abounding indeed!