Friday, September 11, 2009

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 11

Levi Stahl

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

I suppose they go back to the jobbing writers of the eighteenth century, folks like Johnson and Hazlitt, writing on various topics at various lengths on tight deadlines; throw in the more meditative, personal style of Montaigne, and you’ve probably got the start of a good basic lineage.

As for my own precursors, well, when I started blogging about books, I explained that I was starting a blog so that I would stop reading aloud at parties. I was only half joking: what I was looking for in blogging was exactly that opportunity, but without the social awkwardness: the chance to share books—and passages from books—that I thought friends would enjoy. It’s a relic of my enjoyment of hand-selling in my days as a bookseller, that relatively rare chance to pass on your deep-rooted enthusiasm about an author or a work.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

When I started, my models, to the extent that I had any, weren’t bloggers—I wasn’t keyed in to the world of book blogs at that point. Rather, they were book reviewers who wrote from a position of appreciation, among them Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly, Michael Dirda, and, in their own ways, Borges and Calvino. Powell in particular, my favorite novelist and one of my favorite critics, was important, the way he moved easily among anecdote, biography, and criticism displaying a facility to which I still aspire.

I also admired talented keepers of commonplace books, like Andre Bernard and D. J. Enright, and this seemed like a medium that would accommodate work in that form as well.

Now, four years on, I have so many more models: I’ve read far more of Dr. Johnson than I had then, and what can a conscientious writer do but take him, humbly, as a model? And I follow and admire many of my fellow bloggers, who in their dedication and sheer variety inspire me every day—and, I hope, help me to keep out of ruts.

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

One thing that unites all the writers I cited as models—while simultaneously setting them apart from the generic concept of “book review,” however many of those they may have written—is the aforementioned enthusiasm. All approach books as lovers of books: they’re critical, but they never forget why we bother being critical in the first place. They are entertained, amused, impressed, moved by books; they live and breathe them. That’s my life, and, at the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I’d say that’s a characteristic that’s largely missing from mainstream book review coverage, which suffers from the twin problems of institutional voice and preoccupation with the new. If blogging has taught me nothing else, it’s been to write as me, with my loves and admirations fully on display. That’s what will encourage readers to take a flyer on books I write about; that’s what might convince them that an author is worth their time.

The blog also offers a structural freedom that formal book reviewing can’t. Rather than being oppressed by the constant flow of new books, my writing can reflect much more the way people actually read: backwards and forwards in time, new and old intermingled, obsessing about an author or a period for a few weeks, then veering off in a completely new direction. And the malleability of the form is a constant pleasure, too: I don’t have to write as if each post is the ultimate judgment on a book; rather, each post can find its own length, tone, and style. A relatively detailed look at Anthony Powell’s prose can be followed the next day by a vicious quotation from Ivy Compton-Burnett, with my contribution reduced to little but admiration.

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

Well, we seem to live in a culture that divides everything into work and not-work, and this is definitely not work—both because no one is offering to pay me to do it and because it never feels like work.

To be honest, blogging occupies a similar place in my life to running, as activities I very much enjoy that also happen to be good for me, keeping me feeling calm and fit and even-keeled. At the start of every week, I look ahead and make plans to ensure I can manage both every other day; if I can’t, I get antsy.

The difference—and this is no small thing—is that while running is entirely solitary, blogging has pleasantly surprised me by introducing me to a true community of serious readers. When I started I thought I was writing for myself and friends; that was true, but the friends soon included many people I’d not yet met. What began as a hobby has become a conversation, one in which I get back far more—from people with more knowledge and experience than I have—than I ever give.

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

Another of my models was Harry Mathews, whose book Twenty Lines a Day records his attempt to force himself to write at least twenty good lines per day. When I started the blog, I wasn’t writing at all, and I missed it; having an obligation to myself to write regularly and well seemed like a good way to get back into the habit.

Four years later, I find that I’m a much, much more capable writer: I organize my thoughts better, draw connections more clearly, and am no longer stymied by the blank page. I know now, as I didn’t then, that if I can just dive into working on a piece, I’ll be able to sort it out eventually, and that confidence is of incalculable value. I’m also simultaneously more confident in my judgments and less worried about openly admitting to all the things I don’t know—one of the glories of the Internet, like your first year of college, being to remind you of those vast areas of knowledge you’ve not come close to exploring yet.

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.

Maybe it’s my tone, or maybe it’s just my relatively low readership, but I rarely encounter this problem. Even the few authors whose books I’ve strongly criticized who’ve gotten in touch have been remarkably pleasant, probably more so than I deserved.

Ultimately I’m just not someone who’s interested in fighting in public. I grew up in a family with a very strong live-and-let-live approach, and in the presence of the fired-up, intense, or possibly crazy, we’re fundamentally inclined to nod and smile—if necessary raising an eyebrow at something particularly egregious—as we sidle towards the door. And online, the door is always right there.

Honestly, my experience of online life has been almost exactly the opposite. People are incredibly generous: I can’t count the number of complete strangers who’ve written to me or left comments on my blog pointing me to authors, writings, and resources that I didn’t know, and who’ve taken the time to do so simply because they thought I’d be interested. In a mild sense, that distinction between friend and stranger has broken down, and I think nothing these days of sending a note to someone—however high-profile—whom I know only through their writing. The Internet is ever-changing, but it was built on sharing, and that ethos still seems to hold pleasantly strong.

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?

Sure I would love to have a bigger audience. What blogger, putting in hours every week, wouldn’t? But ultimately, god knows, I’m not doing this for fame or fortune: I blog because I enjoy it. And, as Anthony Powell reminds us in A Dance to the Music of Time, the portion of the public to whom books matter has always been vanishingly small; it’s surely naïve to hope for more. Perhaps it’s my aforementioned memories of hand-selling, but I am always very pleased when I learn that my efforts have sold even a single book: when I think of the value of certain books in my life—the way in which I return to them again and again, as touchstones, references, guides—I feel I’ve done my part any time I introduce such potential to the life of someone who was hitherto a stranger.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Function of book blogging? To stay in touch?