Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Commonplace Books & Uncommon Blogs

Bacon, Jonson, Milton, Locke and Jefferson kept commonplace books. Today, they've migrated here, to blogs. Why this medium gets a bad rap among many intellectuals puzzles me, therefore. Two representative sneers from the February 2008 "Harper's." You'd think Ursula Le Guin, with her interest in fantasy's possibilities for social transformation, would have smarter insights. In a predictable attack-- but which I happen to agree with-- on bookselling's bottom-line corporate control (hail, Google E-Blogger!), "Staying Awake," Le Guin thunders:

"In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can't lull you with surging music, or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won't move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won't move your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won't do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it-- everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not 'interactive' with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer's mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it."

So far, so good. I chant to my Contemporary Literature students similar spells. But, not so as to alienate those addicted to World of Warcraft-- whose numbers where I teach are legion. Many of my lit students are GSP-- Gaming & Simulation Programming-- majors. So, I try to arouse them towards recognizing the permanence of story's allure within our changing expressions of narrative over the past few thousand years. Le Guin's nagging won't win her any more youngsters eager for "Chronicles of Earthsea" in junior-high and (a novel I taught when my school offered Science Fiction as more than a theoretical catalog elective, now relegated online) "The Left Hand of Darkness" in college, on or off the curriculum.

She shares her frustration with the medium you and I use now to communicate. Rather than the magazine page, where on the treadmill-- speaking of an interplay in our multitasking era allowed by old and new technologies commingling busily-- I perused "Staying Awake," she suspects the Internet. There's "curiously little aesthetic satisfaction to be got from Web-surfing." Looking at this Blogtrotter entry, Le Guin would bemoan the borrowed nature of its content. Text half mine, half hers. Lifted from glossy paper with handsome illustrations by Matisse, and a Magyar, of women with open pages. But, this blog entry, she'd insist, remains an "artifact." It's "not created by it and not intrinsic to it. Perhaps blogging is an effort to bring creativity to networking, and perhaps blogs will develop aesthetic form, but they certainly haven't done it yet." (37)

Here we go again. I add pictures I borrow (with due credit) from my careful image searches for each entry. I integrate what passages from print move me; I incorporate my reviews on Amazon, often expanded here. I note my own research published (once in a while!) elsewhere. I record my thoughts, expand and edit and redact them in a manner that a paper journal would not allow with the same facility. Yes, the aesthetics are limited by my own lack of html.

I wish I had Ciara or Lee's html expertise, both of them self-taught perforce both in the decade pre-Blogger, for they know how to bring to their designed sites such flair ("North," "Pensive Quill" for C., "Come Back Horslips" for L., all linked at the right of where you're skimming this). Stay awake!

Google's given us freeloaders only a few templates. Far more limited than those on MySpace, however. Still, you can see what we do with them if you sample Bo's "Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" for a rich array of art mingled with prose, or how "Tre Gwernin" & "Independence Cymru" within the same template boundaries attempt to customize their pages to useful effects for their creators' varied interests. Criticizing the page layouts at this incunabular stage of cyber- publishing reminds me of belittling those pre-1500 printed books for their clunky woodcuts or garish rubrics. Le Guin should know better, given her anthropological and scientific education, to expect so much of a mass medium half a decade old as is blogging.

In reviewing books on aphorisms, "Too True" by Arthur Krystal sounds about as stuffy. I'm no radical myself when it comes to encouraging the hegemony of Kindle or the bonfire of the bookstore. Yet, Krystal echoes Le Guin's own whinging sensibilities. I've never been one to bow down even to the bound volume as the repository of all wisdom or delight. My tottering stacks of CDs, the garage with crates of vinyl, and the hours I spent with my (now moribund) iPod compiling playlists attest to my tastes outside of my cubbyhole's crowded bookshelves. Krystal suspects my motives.

If he asked me, I'd reply that this blog, and my related 800-plus critiques on Amazon (rate them please, kind reader, via that handy "My Amazon Reviews" on your right hand side of your template tray) represent a healthy integration of bookishness, musical obsession, and an ability to balance these pursuits of the mind and spirit with an ability to make a living and not hole up in a rented room with fifteen-foot high towers of dogeared (or valuable) post-incunabalic tomes stolen from libraries that will one day lean in and smother me. I'd also tell Krystal that I read and write.

Such an ordinary (at least to snobbish professorial me) activity whether recorded in a diary, filling up an anthology of my collected criticism (I wish), or on this blog appears unremarkable. It's continuing what Auden published; "A Certain World" has long been on my crowded shelf. Why critics bemoan the electronic transfer of the reader's insertion of passages he or she's found instructive or delightful into a personal journal confuses me. Lee Siegel recently published his self-justifying rant against the Net. He'd been tagged out while promoting his own blog against his critics as the admirer "Sprezzatura" (better handle than mine or my own blog's, but these onomastic stakeouts get pounded out quickly in the Oklahoma Sooner rush that's the past decade on this Net). His fumble to boost his own technorati cred resulted not only in ridicule on and offline, but a well-publicized book that I will not even bother to cite by name. Siegel's beef: bloggers-- this just in-- write mainly about what they read and think about as they cite and report the thoughts and contributions of others. Therefore, as they have little new to say, why blog?

If this argument reduced itself to absurdity, than why would Plato have shared Socrates' teachings to him? Why do we need a Talmud when we first had Torah? Why should almanacs, concordances, popularizations, digests, commentaries, or even criticism be created, if all we gnatty scribblers do is stand on the shoulders of giants? Why ask my students how they'd interpret a story they're assigned? Why take the trouble to tap this out about Le Guin and Krystal for you? Haven't they had their say, and exhausted the topic? Krystal chimes in a footnote: "Of course, anyone can keep a commonplace book, and thousands of bloggers do, though one has to wonder whether it is knowledge that is being served or merely thousands of egos." Note too how "Harper's" byline for Krystal promotes his own self as "the author, most recently, of. . . "

So, if my ego, my profile, and my photo all appear on this page, they do so not only as their own manifestation, but an attempt to transcend my own Amazon ranking, my own academic bonafides, my own neurotic desperation. My struggles to communicate with you, my unseen reader, may result in only solipsism. Tautological conversations that threaten to return as echoing monologues.

Yet, I have more trust in the commonsense of open source, of Wikipedia, of Creative Commons, and my fellow bloggers and readers from whom I learn and with whom I prattle on so much. Perhaps the Net may yet hold out on the frontier against the commodification of every corner of our life, and now Second Life. Why one escapes on online and then drags the politics, franchises, brands, and identities of this sorry civilization into one's supposedly alternative utopia may be a conundrum Le Guin might solve, in a sequel to her capitalist vs. anarchist "The Dispossessed."

The Encyclopaedia Britannica's fat rows of Great Books mid-century had as their preface a slender invitation entitled "The Great Conversation". If this venerable chat about Big Questions and small talk goes on beyond the reading groups of 1954, and intersects with the classroom (where I will post Le Guin's comment for student reaction as on-line "threaded discussion"!) via this blog, what of it? We're reading, you may be writing, and we're thinking. Even when playing that considerably intricate and intellectually demanding (if a time waster for some who've recovered and enrolled in my classes) World of Warcraft, from what the kids tell me.

Who's to dictate, on the other hand, how we immerse our minutes within our leisure? The pressure of the practical crushes often our sensibility. One of the appeals that the medievalists I studied had for me: they insisted that their socialist, anarchic, communal, and/or distributist utopias would allow ample time for cultivation of one's own mental garden, once the physical one had been sowed. Against this pastoral, I still hear my careworn, intellectually suspicious parents' nagging me constantly about burying my nose in a book. Like that anti-social woman turned away from us in the illustration which accompanies "Staying Awake." Her back's facing us-- for all her "interaction," she might as well be blogging away alone at her laptop.

Henri Matisse, 1894. Woman Reading

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