Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blogging is a way of life

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 10

by Nigel Beale

Nota Bene Books

• What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Short answer: anything that enabled the A) storage and/or B) sharing of ideas.

A) Given that I call my site “a commonplace book blog”: “A place to quote, abridge, and commonplace passages of rhetorical, dialectic and factual interest, mix them with comment and reflection, and index them to facilitate retrieval and use, notably in the composition of my own prose,” I’d say that the commonplace book is the obvious precursor, but anything that facilitated the storage of thoughts—one’s own and others’—would qualify I think: journals, letters, notebooks.

So, a place to store ideas:

“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories’: and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”

Jonathan Swift, A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet

In addition to written material, it’s also a place to store and present audio/video material: a place to house the interviews I conduct. “These interviews attempt to document what’s going on with the book, as art (their contents) and object, at the turn of the 21st century, by capturing and presenting the ideas of passionate, talented authors, publishers, booksellers, collectors, conservators, illustrators, digitizers, librarians—with the goal of creating a place where interested parties can visit to get a comprehensive, entertaining, informative overview of what’s happening, real time, at this crucial stage in the book’s development.”

A precursor to the audio blog might be a tape recorder/player

B) Which leads us to the communicative aspect of blogging: the sharing of thoughts and ideas: in this regard short essays, feuilleton and the like in newspapers, magazines, journals would qualify as precursors, as would intimate gatherings and book clubs.

In fact, some years ago a close friend of mine left to teach at a university in the Maritimes; his departure left a void. We had been meeting monthly, on and off, for about ten years. Mostly we met, usually with one or two others, to discuss the plays of Shakespeare. I missed those rich encounters. To compensate I decided to launch a radio program featuring interviews with authors and other book related professionals. I called it The Biblio File. Coincidental with this I started blogging. The blog, then, grew out of a desire to share thoughts, enthusiasms, and musings on and about literature, poetry and the book.

These interviews are aired on a local radio station in Ottawa, another precursor to the (audio/video component of a) blog.

• Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Initial response: no one. I do my own thing. Whatever stuns my mind long enough to make an impression . . . whatever I think worthy of saving/sharing, I record and/or ruminate upon. Sometimes it’s merely a quote, other times it’s a quote with a response; sometimes short unsubstantiated opinion, other times lengthier polemics, reviews, etc. So, ‘who’ do I look toward for inspiration? Anyone who has said or written something worth remembering; because this is a book blog, more often than not, it’s a literary critic: Steiner, Bloom, Barthes, Clive James, John Metcalf; Dr. Johnson is a regular; or a poet, Auden, or an author: Maugham, Montaigne, Huxley . . . yes: lots of dead white males . . . because they come immediately to mind: Helen Gardner . . . George Eliot; Carol Ann Duffy; Susan Sontag from time to time.

As for blogs: I have a list of favourites I frequent. They tend to fall into one of two categories: those that focus on providing links, with accompanying, usually pithy, commentary (Books Inq., Bookninja, The Elegant Variation, Readysteadybook); those that serve up longer, essay-like fare (Ed Champion, Steve Mitchelmore, D. G. Myers, Patrick Kurp, Amateur Reader). I also like what Sarah Crown is doing at the Guardian.

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

No editors/quality control (good and bad); no space restrictions (good and bad); timeless (good); anything goes (good and bad); freedom to focus on the important, rather than “urgent” (good); anyone can do it (good and bad).

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

Blogging is more a way of life, of satisfying an urge to respond to stimuli and to receive feed back; to communicate, connect; to share thoughts on what has been seen or read or heard with like-minded people; to comment on significant events or entertainments. Life now doesn’t seem complete unless I'm actively contributing/participating in this way. Watching, listening, reading alone is now, just not enough. I’ll often see and photograph things for my blog. Blogging isn’t just a hobby, it’s a way of experiencing the world.

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

Not sure that it has changed it all that significantly; perhaps because posts are written for myself primarily; but of course there is an audience, so I do pay more attention to spelling . . . or spell checking . . . I’m an atrocious speller; I may have become a bit more succinct; more aware of the need to capture and hold the attention of readers . . . also, too, I suppose because my blog serves as a kind of CV, I do try to maintain at least a modicum of professionalism.

• 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.

For the most part I have enjoyed disagreeing with commenters on my site and at others. Argument and counter-argument is what literary criticism is all about. I have however been harassed at times by a well-known anonymous book blog troll . . . one who has illegally assumed my identity, and slandered me. Needless to say this is upsetting. I can only hope that those who administer such things will make this behavior more difficult in future, especially the anonymity part.

• 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?

No. While the desire for fame and fortune does lurk somewhere deep in the murky motivation department: who doesn’t want to get paid well for what they love doing: blogging per se fulfills its promise just fine for me: it provides a platform for expression of the joys and pleasures that books provide; as well as a forum within which to exchange thoughts and feelings about same. This is the gold.

• 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?

No. I think this is horse shit. What with all the brainless, effortless entertainment that surrounds us, it's little wonder that book bloggers don't attract “huge” audiences . . . but I suspect the better ones do earn large audiences, relative to the total pool of book loving, screen reading intelligence seeking denizens that are out there.

• Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Not a question of wise or foolish. Book bloggers, like any others, are free to include or exclude whatever they see fit. I have an interest in evaluative criticism, and the aesthetic valuation of literature and art; this could change. Others may go cuckoo over thematic criticism, how social or political issues influence the production of literature . . . some may obsess on a particular critic or author . . . for most book bloggers taste and inclination is what drives content . . . and this is as it should be. If the putative topic is books, but the content is overwhelmingly political, polemical, then a-political book loving visitors will no doubt move on.; there are plenty of alternatives.

From time to time I’ll weigh in on an issue that affects what I’m interested in: the Canadian government’s recent decision to implement more stringent funding criteria for magazines for example. The foolish book blogger , I’d say, is one who disingenuously cultivates an audience; who blogs not out of true interest, but out of a desire simply to generate numbers; to present ears and eyeballs to prospective advertisers. Political or “popular culture” or other types of commentary may attract more visitors but if it’s just a ploy, committed bibliophiles will soon tire of it and leave. Conversely, political “commentary” can at times be interesting; the blogger may have something valuable to say about the influence of Enron on fiction for example; or 9/11 on poetry; Obama on drama. It gets foolish when ulterior motives unveil themselves.


Art Durkee said...

All very well said, Nigel. I find myself very much in agreement. Thank you.