What is the Wednesday Investigations?

The Wednesday Investigation is a “curated curiosity hole”—a semi-weekly deep dive into a notecard index, which I’ve maintained for over two decades now.

The notecard index began life as a notebook, inspired by reading Joan Didion's "On Keeping a Notebook," back in (probably) 1996, when I was beginning graduate school. By 1997, though, I'd shifted from notebooks to notecards, which allowed for some cross-referencing: individual cards could be filed with similar cards under a system of categories and headings that I'd designed. By around 2006 I moved away from physical notecards and began to maintain the note index digitally. The system of headings became a system of "tags," which allowed for the cross-referencing to grow more robust. More tags have been added over the years, as the system grows and evolves, and I now have somewhere around 900 tags keeping the whole index organized.

The tag that's relevant here is one just called "investigate," which I append to notes documenting things worthy of "further investigation." The decision about what does or doesn't qualify as "worthy of investigation" stems basically from a gut feeling, although at the onset of this project I spent some time trying to untangle the sentiment, and I ended up saying that "when I tag something investigate, it's out of a sense that the thing (whatever it might be) has a context, and that investigating the context is a necessary part of investigating the thing itself. That learning about the context is going to be part of where the joy comes from."

And I found myself thinking that maybe joy was exactly the thing missing from my intellectual life this summer. I found myself thinking, in other words, that maybe it was time to actually investigate the things that I'd marked with that tag over the years. (The oldest "investigate" card dates back to 1997.) This impulse lines up with Didion's wishes for her notebook: "See enough and write it down," she writes, "and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there."

A safe way "back to the world out there"--who hasn't wanted that over these past weeks and months? What better time could there possibly be to tuck into the interest amassed in that "forgotten account?" So each week, since April, I've been choosing one note marked "investigate" and putting in the work to pursue the line of inquiry. Some weeks this turns into an investigation of the origins of non-representational film, some weeks it turns into an investigation of whether computers can be taught to write novels. At the onset of the George Floyd protests I investigated "insurrectionary time" and "critical hope" in the work of the science fiction writer Rasheedah Phillips and the experimental musician Camae Ayewa.

Since I began writing these, there hasn't been a single morning where the world has felt drained of wonder--and that feels like maybe the most important gift I've given myself during an emergency that I suspect will be ongoing for some time. Thanks for coming along, or at least for clicking through to take a curious look.

-JPB