29 October 2009

Blog Bound

Man publishes website on paper

  • Caleb Crain. The Wreck of the Henry Clay. Self-published. May 2009.

On December 7th, 2006, in a blog entry on “Offprints in the Digital Age,” honestly reprinted in its entirety, n+1 friend and frequent contributor Caleb Crain assured his readers, “not even I am so nineteenth-century as to have my essays privately printed.” But he has now gone and done just that! Not just his essays but the blog itself, “Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.” By doing so, he offers a Quixotic and dandified challenge, a well-mannered provocation to a legion of conventional wisdoms about what I now sadly must call something like “word culture.” Why turn your blog back into a printed book when the whole point of blogging and reading blogs was thought to lead to an inexorable emancipation from the bindings of the page, the severe duties of print?

Although that question is never addressed directly, an answer of sorts emerges over 400 pages, spanning six years of blog posts. Hardly a member of the dreaded MSM when he began blogging, Crain was nonetheless an established and highly-regarded freelance journalist for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Nation, a former editor of Lingua Franca, the review of academic life that ceased publication in 2001, and a scholar of 19th century American history and literature. Crain tells us that he started the blog after being offered free software and web-hosting in a trial for Harvard alumni. (It’s worth noting how “new media” forms were deliberately marketed via such perks to those positioned to drive change from the top. As we’ve seen with the Kindle. More recently, Jeff Bezos gifted the device to book publishers and literary agents, thereby enlisting them as footsoldiers in the liquidation—er, future—of their own trade.) In his introduction, Crain admits to diverse motives, some vaguely professional—posting corrections and addenda to published pieces, trying to identify an audience or community of readers who might like his work but not have time to track him through all the various publications he writes for. He is forthright about the fact that he had no need to “break in” to the old media establishment, nor did he imagine he was breaking it down.

Freed from both immediate motive and the insecurities of status that led many first-time bloggers to adopt a tone at once combative, hyperbolic, and self-consciously folksy (“just bloggin’”), Crain simply sets out, in stately middle-style prose, to explore and record those efflorescences of cultural life that catch his eye, a life that rapidly comes to include the act of blogging. An early entry (May 2003), notes that the unpaid, freelance blogger is often stranded between the desire to do actual research and the fear that this will be a gigantic waste of time. “Thus one is left with opinions, preferably about things outside one’s area of expertise. But if one isn’t being paid, it seems prodigal to make enemies unnecessarily. And so one is confined to positive opinions of contemporaries and free opinions of the dead.” Having formulated this rule, Crain proceeds to circumvent it, mostly by packing his blog with lots of research, comments on other people’s research, and theories, rather than mere opinions, some well inside his area of expertise.

Those who have enjoyed Crain’s reviews in the New Yorker will find several “bonus tracks,” in the form of observations about gay life in American history, that either made it into publication in shortened form or were cut completely by editors. American literature specialists or even enthusiasts will be pleased and infuriated by much in this book. Amid a flurry of posts on what one finds in New York newspapers in the 1850s comes one about a New York Herald editorial from April 12, 1851, written with a biographer’s scrupulous attention to every detail of who was where, and when and how they were related, and ending with the suggestion that the editorial might have been a direct influence on Melville as he wrote the final chapter of Moby Dick. Another post aims to convince us that Emerson believed in vampires. A small but enormously powerful mine is let off under the field of Emily Dickinson studies, when, in five paragraphs, Crain suggests that Dickinson’s mysterious dashes were a form of “standard, non-standard punctuation.” It’s a piece that would not have been out of place in an academic publication like Notes and Queries, or even American Literature Quarterly, but appears in this collection among entries on Quentin Tarantino, what music for cats might sound like, and how to feed a sick dog.

Occasionally, Crain even turns accidental prophet. In June 2004, writing up his notes on Paul Collins’s memoir, Not Even Wrong, he speculates on the potential evolutionary advantage of depression and its link to concentration, problem-solving, and literacy. Five years later, an article by a pair of psychoanalysts arguing just that appeared in Scientific American. These are the sort of musings that one of my graduate school professors used to call, derisively, “shower thoughts.” Yet some of us really do our best thinking when the only pressure applied is of water on the back of our necks. Regardless of topic: peak oil, the origins of certain rare expressions (“mardy-assed,” “mad, mad I tell you”), the merits of different Turgenev translations for those who don’t know Russian, or the changing driving habits of Eastern Europeans, via an astute reading of Martha Gellhorn’s 1940 novel, A Stricken Field, Crain handles them all with an unflagging open-mindedness and intelligence, as though conducting a course on how to be a responsible polymath. Entries on the scarcity of metals and the calculation of “Thoreau Speed” read like master classes for journalists and fact-checkers interested in using statistics and equipped with nothing more than Google, a fast connection, and time. 

There is scarcely an entry in which one doesn’t learn something, no matter how trivial, as well as feel the author’s own joy at learning the same thing. Call this the real “democratic” potential of the blog. One’s only credentials are one’s seriousness, measured not by tone, rhetoric, or degrees conferred, but by the pains one is willing to take, especially during unsupervised hours. Quality-control and self-indulgence are usual problems for the self-published. Most of us tend to go easier on ourselves. Although Crain starts out pining for “an editor” to tell him what not to do, he ends up becoming his own editor and publisher, even compiling his own index after taking the published version of the 9/11 Commission report to task for not having one. A small vacuum in authority has created a monster of personal responsibility. Contrast this to the faux-democratic, but really “mass-cult” effects of blogging which have reduced news to gossip, critique to fandom, and transmuted taste into mere regional and class preferences.


If there were nothing else to this anthology, Crain has at least demonstrated how the internet, properly used, can revive a spirit of serious amateurism. Or at least that the serious and erudite amateur is one of the best internet avatars we can play. But there is more to The Wreck than just gleaming and attractive flotsam. Salvaged as well are a few posts on the decline of “literary reading” in the US, which eventually led to an article in the New Yorker on the future of reading, and the essay “How the Internet Changes Literary Style,” delivered at a symposium arranged by this magazine. These posts and essays, along with a running commentary on the outrages of the Bush years, and a poignant, elegant poem, “Sequence,” on the topic of climate change, reveal a mind profoundly uneasy with the state of the world, for all the joys found in it.

Briefly summed up, Crain argues that literary reading is actually at greater risk than the National Endowment for the Arts lets on, although there will probably always be a mandarin caste of readers. We are, in short, in the midst of a long cultural recession that is only exacerbated by our current economic one. Not the least among the causes of the decline of “literary reading”—a category created by the NEA that covers novels, poems, and plays, irrespective of their literary merits or of readers’ abilities to actually discern such merits—is the apparently irresistible rise of internet reading. Reading online is “inhospitable” to “the quiet and steady work of elaborating a world.” It is “not like eating an ice cream cone; it is like scratching an itch.” “Reading blogs leaves me more addled and nervous than when I began.” Using the internet is “work-like” without actually being work, doubly corrosive to both work and leisure. Making a familiar point in a novel way, Crain also argues that the internet eliminates the writer’s privacy, and therefore, also, changes the writer’s style to one of “conscious or half-conscious efforts to look sloppy,” that is to abandon the pretense of an isolated, world-shaping creator at a sufficient social or geographical distance from readers. Accustomed to being constantly in the eye of his or her reading public, the contemporary author suffers from a crisis of confidence. “The only way to present yourself is by underselling,” Crain writes, and adds, “No intimacy comes with this déshabille, however. The environment remains dangerous. One skips through a no-man’s land in one’s pyjamas…” And so the enervated reader emerges as the persecutor of the would-be writer, hardly the healthy contract of “willing suspension of disbelief” literature requires. While persuasive and glittering with aphorisms like the few quoted above, “How the Internet Changes Literary Style” also comes across as a bit thin-skinned. Did Keats really have it better when he was savaged in the Tory reviews?

It’s true, as Crain argues, that the internet has made certain “backstage areas” of life impossible. It even creeps into this review, as I’m now compelled to break cover and reveal Caleb is a close associate, whose work, conduct, wit, and demeanor I’ve long admired. I helped publish his novella in n+1 and I’ve sat on panels with him; we have conversations at parties, exchange emails—sometimes agreeing with each other, sometimes disagreeing. Yet the fact of our acquaintance would disqualify me from reviewing this book in, for example, the New York Times Book Review. I can only write this review “online,” just as the structure of this very review suffers from what Caleb deplores—the requirement to compulsively review private arrangements.

But aren’t things more interesting this way, even if also more enervating? Imagine, reader of this book review, what conflicts between my sense of responsibility and the desire to please have gone into this, or what the author will say to me when he reads that, as with any anthology and especially one covering such a wide range, there are some soft spots. Entries on indie rock groups tend to be simple unabashed fandom or shout-outs, see “If Schoolhouse Rock were Afro-Pop, and sung by Cape Codders exiled to New York.” But if we’ve learned anything from the internet, it’s that all mortals are bloggers, even if some of us are often more than just bloggers. Our flaws are not always the truest parts of ourselves, nor are we better for having learned to “loosen up” under the prurient eyes of our peers.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings back the question of why print it. Re-bound, the blog gains some of the distance and dignity of a palpable object, a made thing, the work of a living, thinking person. Despite its considerable page-length, it also fits easily into a standard coat pocket. Given Caleb’s pessimism about the future of general reading and also about the future of the electronic world, it’s hard not to see the decision to print as a kind of Stendhalian wager with the future, an act for the “Happy Few” who will come along in aftertime. Like any responsible person who lived through the September 11th attacks and the Bush years of barbarism at home and abroad, and lives with the simultaneous worry that oil will both run out and not run out fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, Caleb is haunted by the imagination of disasters. And yet, like any intelligent historian, Caleb seems to believe in the survival of documents, of printed records, aware that as the lights have gone out before on civilization, so they could easily go out again. Egyptian papyri survived very well for thousands of years in desert conditions, but nobody knows how Google’s servers will hold up. The Wreck of the Henry Clay invites us to imagine a world where what survives of us is books, and only a few humans left able to read them.

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