Ephemeral, all too ephemeral; Or, does anybody remember what Russell Jacoby wrote yesterday?

David Rothman over at Teleread announced today that I’ll be blogging for them on a semi-regular basis. As I’ve indicated on this blog in the past, I think Teleread is a very good portal for getting good information about all things reading, with a special emphasis on e-books and the general interface between the digital world and books. Also, though I’m not involved in this whole end of things, they function as an advocacy group for universal computer and open library access. A worthy cause in my estimation.

David wasn’t dissuaded by my protestations that I don’t consider myself an expert on reading, e-books, or blogging. I’ll try to keep it from being too much the amateur hour.

But wait, some people are saying that blogging is THE amateur hour, to the destruction of our civilization. So perhaps I’ll just do my best to contribute to the end of all things.

Seriously though, as this blog reaches its one month anniversary, I’ve realized that I’ve been thinking at least as much about how blogging works as writing as I have about how reading is functioning in our contemporary culture. Russell Jacoby, whom I generally respect for his now somewhat ancient call for a renewal of public intellectual work, wrote a kind of scathing dismissal of the contemporary academy, and along with it a rather sniffy dismissal of blogging.

I think Jacoby’s categorical thinking is part and parcel of our problem in grappling with the nature of reading and writing—and thinking and intellectual work—in the contemporary world. It is true that blogs are somewhat ephemeral, but on the other hand, how many of the many periodical essays of the 1950s do people really remember. Moreover, if blogging specifically eschews the media of print and permanence, we might ask what kind of intellectual work, what kind of cultural work generally, is being done by this kind of writing?

It seems to me to apply the standard of permanent value to any public intellectual work is wrongheaded. The things Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling had to say in the 30s, 40s, and 50s can hardly apply to our world at the dawning of the 21st century. But more importantly, they did a specific kind of public intellectual work that was appropriate for the media and age in which they worked.

Blogging can be “id writing” as described in the NyTimes the other day. But it can also be a kind of intellectual and cultural work much different from those that we are used to. The 1950s saw both a lot of what we now envy as influential public intellectual work, and it also saw the explosion on the scene of Playboy magazine. Perhaps this was why people claim even yet today to buy it for the writing.

My point is that magazines and middle to upper middle brow journals were a media through which to do particular kinds of intellectual work. It seems to me that blogs and other kinds of interactive and multimedia formations are the site of potentially important intellectual work today.

But what is the nature of that work. How does it differ from that of the past. Well, for one thing, I think it aspires more to the kind of interchanges that go on in coffeeshop culture of the 18th century, where intellectual work was not yet located (imprisoned?) in as yet undeveloped academy. It’s even much more like the intellectual work that goes on in classrooms or in informal exchanges with colleagues and students after a lecture or reading.

Academics mostly sniff at this kind of thing as beneath their consideration. But it seems to me that it is precisely out of these kinds of exchanges that enduring and important intellectual work comes from. This is why I decided to start blogging a month ago. I wanted to imagine an intellectual space, a conversational space, that wasn’t imprisoned by the conventions of academic work. I also wanted to imagine doing writing that was more like the energy I feel in conversations with good friends about topics I care about deeply.

I think, honestly, that this will lead to another kind of writing that is more conventional. I still want to publish a book on the reading in the contemporary cultural imaginary. On the other hand, just because I continue to envision a more conventional form of intellectual work, I think I’m coming to think that we are mistaken if we think that blogging or other kinds of intellectual exchange on the web can only be justified if they lead to that kind of thing. If they do, great. But if they don’t they are their own kind of good. When Jacoby criticized blogs for the ephemerality, he is holding out the standard of books, and even more books that continue to be read decades after they are written, as the only worthy definition of intellectual work. I dispute that. The immediacy of blogging, the effort to grapple in written words with difficult problems, the opportunity to have friends and strangers read or respond, these are their own goods. This is a kind of intellectual work worth doing regardless of what other forms it may lead to, and regardless of whether it leads anywhere else at all. Just as the engagement I have in my classroom is its own good and produces knowledge worth having in me and in my students, the process of writing, of thinking through issues on a daily or weekly basis, is a knowledge worth pursuing even if it disappears next week or next year.

Well, enough for now. I’ll try to come back later and put in some links for Jacoby’s piece and some other things I refer to in this post. Right now I’ve got to go party with my wife. She thinks I love my blog more than her, so I better go prove her wrong.

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4 thoughts on “Ephemeral, all too ephemeral; Or, does anybody remember what Russell Jacoby wrote yesterday?

  1. Well, I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a big, so I suppose that now is as good a time as any to delurk myself. I for one am glad that you began blogging about a month ago, and I hope that your wife will forgive you for it.

    John

  2. Family before blog, Pete! I’ll look forward to your contributions to the TeleRead blog within the limits of your schedule. No quota.

    “Professional” is in the eyes of the beholder. Different blogs, and different audiences, have different requirements. In writing for TeleRead, just be yourself; I wouldn’t have approached you as a contributor if I didn’t think you would fit in. A good TeleRead post moves along, but if you have a catchy introduction and can keep up the pace, why not write 6,000 words? I recently wrote a 5,500-word review of the One Laptop Per Child machine for library and K-12 purposes, and even then I left out plenty. While most posts at TeleRead are far shorter, the brevity is often just because of limited time. Better to do a short, telegraphic post, and link to information elsewhere, than to keep people ignorant, especially those reliant on TeleRead for a daily overview of the e-book scene. I was rather amused to read that blogs can’t compete with newspapers. For e-book news, we’re far more comprehensive than the New York Times, which I love but which lacks our focus. Via my Publishers Weekly blog, I originate my share of e-book-related news and opinion for PW.

    Despite flaws galore–I single-handedly write at least eighty percent of the posts and have no editors, other than TeleRead’s usefully outspoken readers–I’d like to think we’re professional within our niche. And that should mean a good mix of news and reflection, the latter of which you can help supply. Let me add another thought in this vein. Too much “professionalism” or at least the wrong kind can backfire; a good blogger should learn from his audience rather than trying to project an image of omnipotence. The idea should be to learn from readers, not just write for them. Here’s to truth-seeking–a trait that the best blogging shares with the best work in academia or, yes, traditional journalism!

    As for what’s ephemeral and what isn’t, the issue is tricky. If nothing else, however, the better blogs could be wonderful fodder for historians and biographers–perhaps even more so than the little political and cultural magazines of yore. What about the blogged recollections of the Iraqi war, straight from service people at the front; mightn’t they be as valuable, in their own way, as letters from the Civil War or Ernie Pyle’s newspaper dispatches from World War II? Let’s just hope that the born-digital efforts of the Library of Congress fare well, along with those of the Internet Archive. Then imagine all the riches that will be searchable, Google fashion, centuries from now with proper preservation.

    Needless to say, a national digital library system in the TeleRead vein could help assure the permanence of electronic media–including, yes, books. So might something else dear to me, appropriate format standards for e-books. Millions of young people are growing up accustomed to reading off screens rather than paper, and it would be a shame to see even books become ephemeral, one reason why I’m so supportive of the IDPF’s .epub standard for commercial and academic presses.

    Happy blogging. Now back to your wife and kids!

    Cheers,
    David

    David Rothman, Coordinator
    TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home:
    http://www.teleread.org
    Blog: http://www.teleread.org/blog
    703-370-6540

  3. I too share some of John’s interest what you say here, and via RSS, I have converted that interest into investment. I enjoy what you’ve said so far, and I am glad that you’re pursuing this, “even it disappears next week or next year.”

  4. Thanks to all for these comments. And I enjoyed your page, Andy. I’m guessing another episcopalian? Or perhaps not. Just enjoyed the references to the BCP.

    Re. ephemerality. I find my students are much taken by the idea of books letting them live forever. Permanence, etcetera. I tell them about my father, a physician. All of his patients fall in to two groups: those who have died, and those who will die. This didn’t prevent him from being the absolutely best physician that he could be.

    Similarly, it seems to me that we pursue whatever calling we have in language regardless of its permanence. We seek knowledge and put knowledge into practice in a human world, which is by its nature a changeling. This is, perhaps, a lesson the mythos of old-fashioned books could learn from the mythos of ephemeral blogs and other ethereal entities on the internet.

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