Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 3

by Michael Gilleland
Laudator Temporis Acti

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Precursors include essays (such as those of Montaigne, Johnson, Lamb, and Hazlitt) and diaries or journals (such as those of Emerson and Thoreau). But if Samuel Johnson were alive today, I doubt he would blog, in light of his pronouncement that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

I was inspired to start blogging by William Vallicella and his blog The Maverick Philosopher. I could never hope to emulate the elegance of Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence, but it too is an inspiration to me, as is Roger Kuin’s Old Men Ought to be Explorers.

My blog is simply an electronic replacement for the commonplace books into which I used to copy quotations from books I was reading. Copying and pasting on the computer is easier than copying with pen and ink, and Google also allows me to search my electronic commonplace book easily. It surprises me that anyone bothers to read my blog, which is little more than a record of my reading.

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

A few differences come to mind: 1) the potential audience for book blogging extends to anyone with an Internet connection, whereas a printed book review only reaches magazine subscribers and patients in waiting rooms; 2) print is unforgiving -- if one is lucky, one can later add corrigenda, but the plasticity of bits and bytes allow easy corrections; and 3) traditional book reviewers might be paid, which I suspect is rare among book bloggers, even those with “tip jars” and “wish lists”.

How do you respond to this statement?: Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.

I’d say it’s accurate, although blogging is cheaper than stamp collecting and less strenuous than hockey. Everyone should have a hobby. Laurence Sterne defends the practice in Tristram Shandy: “Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, -- have they not had their Hobby-Horses; -- their running horses, -- their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, -- their maggots and their butterflies? -- and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, -- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

One could make the case that blogging, i.e. rushing into print, is bad for one’s style. Horace (Ars Poetica 388-9) recommended that writers postpone publication for nine years. Nevertheless, the discipline of writing something every day is salutary. Readers are often quick to remind bloggers of mistakes of fact, grammatical and spelling errors, and infelicities of style, all of which is helpful.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?--the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

I largely avoid the attacks by banning comments and staying away from controversial topics. Nevertheless, even the most innocuous statement is bound to offend someone in this thin-skinned age, and I mostly just ignore the occasional hate mail.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

If fame is the end, blogging is not the means. In dress, in ideas, and in other respects, I don’t follow fashion, and so if blogging is now passé, that doesn’t distress me.

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have "earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not," because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers "to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better." Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

Polls consistently show that few people bother to read books these days. Those who blog about books should expect to attract small audiences. I don’t allow comments on my blog, but readers sometimes send me email, and in this way I have met perhaps a dozen congenial souls whom I would not have met otherwise. An audience of a dozen exceeds my expectations.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

In the words of Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer), “There was a time, indeed, I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.” Suum cuique, however, and I won’t stop reading a blog post merely because political commentary intrudes. In general, book bloggers, like cobblers, should stick to their last.


Eric Thomson said...

One of the precursors of book-blogging and blogging in general is suggested, for me at least, in this extract from an essay by Johnson "The boundless liberty with which every man may write his own thoughts, and the opportunity of conveying new sentiments to the publick, without danger of suffering either ridicule or censure, which every man may
enjoy, whose vanity does not incite him too hastily to own his
performances, naturally invites those who employ themselves in
speculation, to try how their notions will be received by a nation, which exempts caution from fear, and modesty from shame; and it is no wonder, that where reputation may be gained, but needs not be lost, multitudes are willing to try their fortune, and thrust their opinions into the light; sometimes with unsuccessful haste, and sometimes with happy temerity.

It is observed, that, among the natives of England, is to be found a greater variety of humour, than in any other country; and, doubtless, where every man has a full liberty to propagate his conceptions, variety of humour must produce variety of writers; and, where the number of authors is so great, there cannot but be some worthy of distinction.

All these, and many other causes, too tedious to be enumerated, have
contributed to make pamphlets and small tracts a very important part of an English library; nor are there any pieces, upon which those, who aspire to the reputation of judicious collectors of books, bestow more attention, or greater expense; because many advantages may be expected from the perusal of these small productions, which are scarcely to be found in that of larger works."
An Essay on the Origin and Importance of Small Tracts and Fugitive Pieces Written for the Introduction to the Harleian Miscellany (1744)

Minor, marginal, fugitive but also necessary and healthily subversive, pamphlets, tracts and blogs are "a multitude of performances, which would either not have been written or could not have been made publick in any other place".

Johnson also makes a passing reference to the man I'd select as precursor to the book-blogger, Patriarch Photios of Constantinople (c.810-c.891). Here's one example. After offering an extensive synopsis of Ctesias's Persica Photios switches to reviewer mode: "This writer's style is clear and very simple, which makes the work agreeable to read. He uses the Ionic dialect, not throughout, as Herodotus does, but only in certain expressions, nor does he, like Herodotus, interrupt the thread of his narrative by ill-timed digressions. Although he reproaches Herodotus for his old wives' tales, he is not free from the same defect, especially in his account of India. The charm of his history chiefly consists in his manner of relating events, which is strong in the emotional and unexpected, and in his varied use of mythical embellishment. The style is more careless than it should be, and the phraseology often descends to the commonplace, whereas that of Herodotus, both in this and other respects as far as vigour and art are concerned, is the model representative of the Ionic dialect." The Persica itself doesn't survive, and as the same goes for about half of the 280 books Photios discusses his proto-blog, Myriobiblon, is invaluable. He also stuck to his last and left the Byzantine politics of Byzantium out of it.

Michael Gilleland said...

For "plasticity of bits and bytes allow easy corrections," read ""plasticity of bits and bytes allows easy corrections."