The best ideas come from boredom. Early in his career, Bertrand Russell authored “In Defence of Idleness,” a paper that positioned leisure above labor and argued that true productivity comes when productivity isn’t demanded. Arthur Jones’s story might be a useful anecdote for any young philosopher looking to defend Russell’s “Defence.” Seven years ago, while working at a Chicago ad agency, Jones was asked by his friend and then–This American Life producer Starlee Kine to perform at her going-away party at the Hideout.
“I was at work, and I didn’t have anything to do,” says Jones. “So I wrote a story and illustrated it storyboard-style on these Post-it Notes and put them up as a slide show. And for some reason, it was a hit.”
Four years ago, when Jones moved to New York, he and Kine started a reading series called Post-It Note Diaries, in which Jones storyboarded writers’ essays on those little yellow squares. The show’s audience grew, and after earning a spot on a This American Life live show, Jones found editors interested in a book. Post-It Note Diaries (Plume, $15), the new book Jones and Kine are in town to launch, features personal essays from the likes of David Rakoff, Beth Lisick, John Hodgman, Chuck Klosterman and more. In Rakoff’s, the author of Half Empty volunteers for a Homeland Security test-response to a dirty bomb. Though he’s supposed to be so burned that his ulnas are showing, he mostly lies on a gurney, intermittently falling asleep. He describes it thusly: “I’d say it was a bit like watching someone piss himself in a pair of dark brown corduroys: an extreme gesture whose effect is largely opaque to the observer.”
Like most of the stories here, the story is light and funny, the same sort of ironic fare you’d expect from the NPR Sunday Players. Jones’s illustrations, however, add more than novelty to the storytelling. The essays read almost as comic strips, with the words at times captioning the illustrations, and other times the drawings signalling at something happening in the background.
Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief) tells the story of being five and playing in a graveyard during recess from kindergarten. She fell and cut her wrist on an unmarked stone, severing an artery. The story is one of the best in the book, precisely because of the way the words and pictures interact. When a doctor out of a ’70s sitcom—bushy mustache, giant headlamp—sews her up, Tinti writes. “He was friendly. Then I kicked him in the face, and he wasn’t so friendly anymore.” The sight gag of the tiny foot connecting just below the doc’s sideburn pays off. Tinti then writes, “He took out all the pieces of the grave from inside me and then he started sewing.”
The juxtaposition of the kick with the “took all the pieces of the grave from inside me,” points at another interesting aspect of the storytelling here. Because the sentences are largely short and direct, confined beneath small yellow rectangles, there’s a lot more friction between the funny and the poignant. And whereas the personal essay often delights in excess, concision wins the day.
And, as Jones says, there’s something about the form that appeals to the everyman.
“They’re these sort of utilitarian things that I had at my disposal at work, that I could doodle on and no one would notice,” he says. “But I’ve been surprised by how much they resonate with people.”
Jones and Kine will perform selections from the book and the series Saturday 29 at the Hideout, where it all began.