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By (May 1, 2008) No Comment

Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web

By Sarah Boxer
Vintage Books, 2008

Ah, the blogosphere. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a powerful tool for making and breaking celebrities and politicians, or a place for lonely individuals to chatter about their insignificant little lives. The one common belief is that it’s a twisty, overgrown forest of a place, and few people have time to fight through the weeds and find the really worthwhile entries—if indeed they exist at all. It’s like having 500 cable channels and no listings guide.
Those already au fait with the concept of blogs know that like begets like: find an admirable writer, and chances are good that he links to kindred spirits. But how does one discover that initial gem? And what happens when you’re completely blog-ignorant?

That appears to be the pitch behind Sarah Boxer’s Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. This “anthology of blogs,” to use Boxer’s description, seeks to provide a starting point for those unfamiliar with the form by introducing twenty-seven writers whose works are “masterpieces of blogging.”

Authors include an animated-filmmaker, a CalTech theoretical physicist, a Singaporean student, and a US soldier stationed in Iraq; posts touch on everything from the challenges of being a Middle Eastern man in America to infertility to alcoholic parents to fellatio.

Boxer’s selected writers approach the Internet as something like an electronic Swiss Army knife. She writes,

Some use it as a writing prod. Some use it as a trash can. Some use it like a diary. Some use it like a pulpit. Some use it like a drawing pad. Some use it like a padded room. Some use it to reach out. Some use it to reach in. Some use it to get mad. Some use it to get even.

And this, in effect, is part of the trouble; how can one possibly hope to create a reasonable representation of the best blogs when there is so much variety in outlook and intent, and no central theme to tie them together? Boxer attempts to create cohesion with the argument that all are connected by their adherence to “bloggy writing”:

It is conversational and reckless, composed on the fly for anonymous intimates. It is public and private, grand and niggling, smart-assed and dumb-assed. Bloggers won’t help you catch up if you missed the last installment. They often begin midthought or midrant, in medias craze…. Bloggers are often loose-lipped and foulmouthed, free with their lives and free with the truth. They love run-on sentences and acronyms … they willfully misspell.

That may be true of some blogs. However, most of the examples in this book are the work of solid writers who understand grammar and style—who blog because they love writing, not because they desire a soapbox.

Furthermore, Boxer notes, “If people wrote like this for publication, they’d probably be fired,” an assertion that obviously depends on one’s definition of “for publication.” Featured here are Matthew Yglesias, whose posts on politics now appear under The Atlantic’s online banner, and Julia Litton, who also contributes reflections on parenting to Redbook’s blog. No dead trees are involved, but it’s still publishing. (And just two paragraphs earlier, Boxer notes that many of the bloggers in this anthology “already have publishers.”)

So much for writing style as a connecting feature. Boxer further tries to group the blogs by their existence “out of the fray,” by which she means that, unlike Daily Kos or the Huffington Post, they’re not influential, high-profile voices. “They write more than they link, and they’re read more than they’re linked to,” she notes. Recognizing the difficulties of reading online content in an offline setting, Boxer has chosen to favor “the lowly over the linky” as a deliberate way of ensuring the reading experience does not lose value for being in an alternate medium. As Boxer helpfully points out, “You cannot click on a link in a printed book.” Good to know.

The selected posts make for interesting reading, providing an insight into real, sometimes painfully honest human experiences in a way to which the diary form is uniquely suited. These are writers unafraid of (or, perhaps, inspired by) self-discovery in a public forum. Here’s blogger Eurotrash, writing about her childhood and her parents’ relationship:

Growing up, my sister and I usually shared a room — not for space reasons, but because, well, we belonged together — even if we did occasionally squabble and draw lines dividing the room into our own halves that neither was allowed to cross, ON! PAIN! OF!… something or other. We had bunk beds that were bright red and covered with nylon sheets that my self-absorbedly oblivious parents had no idea and cared less, would cause my sister and her eczema years of torment. Ach, never mind. Have another gin and bitter lemon, you bastard. The kids’ll be asleep soon and we can get back to throwing staplers at each other.

But does that mean these blogs are good blogs? Are they really “masterworks,” the “ultimate” in their field? Blogs are not merely virtual diaries for the self-involved. They are as flexible as the technology on which they rest, allowing a writer to tell a story with images, audio, video, contextual links, connected references to earlier posts. A blog with few outbound links or multimedia components, therefore, is not representative of blogs in general; by focusing on works that survive when removed from their natural habitat, Boxer has created an anthology of creative writing that happens to be online, rather than an emblematic collection of superlative examples of the form.

That’s no bad thing in itself. But the choice of a title that promises more than it can logically deliver undermines Boxer’s authority on the subject, much as her introduction, a giddy assortment of generalizations, contradictions, and scattered allusions, suggests an uninitiated writer attempting to mimic a “bloggy” writing style.

Blogs are not one-way streets; most allow reader comments, providing a forum for connections and interactions, links in the broader, non-HTML sense. Sometimes the authors participate in the ongoing conversation, and sometimes they throw out an incendiary idea and respond to the firestorm that follows. But Boxer doesn’t mention this; from her perspective, blogs are monologues, and the measure of their success or influence is based purely on inbound links.

And yet the book includes excerpts that illustrate the value of reader feedback. In the blog I Blame the Patriarchy, the author’s claim that no woman “has ever actually enjoyed [the] submissive sexbot drudgery” of fellatio ignites a vibrant, impassioned argument that rages for more than 250 comments and pollinates discussion elsewhere in the blogosphere. When the blog’s author refers to the pro-fellatio posts as “a pestilence of asinine responses,” she is rewarded with another 150-plus replies. But the scale of the discussion—and the variety of responses—becomes apparent only when one visits the site; in print, the experience is a literary cul-de-sac.

Blogs allow their owners to speak plainly, to posit transgressive ideas and try out socially sensitive theories. They also provide space for visitors to criticize, contradict, goad, and agree. Though Boxer is obviously aware of this, she makes no mention of the value of the interactive, call-and-response feature that gives blogs vitality—and which, once again, becomes contextually lifeless on paper.

“None of these blogs would have been likely to sprout in any other form,” Boxer tells us. And that might be a strong argument, were it not for the inclusion of the online Diary of Samuel Pepys, updated daily with entries taken from Project Gutenberg’s 1893 edition. Boxer describes it as “the oldest blog in the book,” and while it certainly holds claim to having the oldest content, the site has only existed since 2003. Perhaps this was a whimsical inclusion, a nod to the universal and historical appeal of the diary as narrative form. But the concept falls flat, like a joke translated into another language, and again calls Boxer’s expertise into question.

Pepysdiary.com is a vibrant example of how the Web can enhance the reading experience: click a linked name or unfamiliar word, and a small bio or definition pops up. Click a city and see a map. There are contemporary weather reports and links to that date’s happenings in Parliament. This interactivity gives standard printed footnotes a dynamic, interactive twist—and that is what makes the site noteworthy. Transpose the words back to paper, and you’re left with a 350-year-old diary, not a blog.

Which brings up the matter of timeliness. Blogs are about forward motion and progression, and updated content is the lure that attracts a loyal audience. The speed with which change occurs is apparent from Boxer’s assertion that blog-tracker Technorati lists 80 million blogs; as of the end of March, that number stood at 112 million, and will have climbed higher by the time you read this.

When words are taken off the screen and pinned to the page, the momentum is lost. Included in the book are once-timely topics that now seem stale (Abu Ghraib; Saddam Hussein’s execution; the release of the movie Spider-Man 2), as well as the work of one writer who retired from blogging in August 2007. It’s the equivalent of publishing two-year-old newspaper Op-Ed columns; they may be powerfully written, but they are historical documents, not current events, and they’re not necessarily indicative of the same publication today.

It’s hard to identify the intended audience for Ultimate Blogs: Boxer’s introduction reads like a primer for the completely uninitiated, defining terms like wiki and troll, explaining LOL and WTF and IMHO, pointing out the purpose of archives and blogrolls. She also provides hints on finding blogs, phrased as though meant to guide a grandmother with a new AOL account:

Go to your computer and find them on the Web by searching for the blog by name or by entering its Web address, or URL […] if you find a new blog that you like, put it in your favorites list so you can easily find it later.

While Boxer decides against including the hyperlinked content that makes a blog a blog (because “a book looks weird when its pages are littered with Web site addresses and very long quotes and quotes within quotes”), she nonetheless feels it’s important to interject her own explanatory notes. Here’s a selection from the blog It’s Raining Noodles! with Boxer’s additions in square brackets:

My brother, who has spent approximately two-thirds of his life in RPGs [role-playing games], he took one look at that line and calmly translated, “Going to Ellinia, please wait for me.” I stared at him in admiration and asked him how he knew, was he psychic? He smirked and said, “Noob [i.e. novice] encoding.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Boxer edits a number of posts, which suggests they weren’t quite what she’d hoped for, but would have to do. Here’s a post from Tony Karon’s Rootless Cosmopolitan:

But let’s not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, of which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual’s strength of character. […][T]he ANC […] was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership […] whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people.

These unnecessary edits break up the rhythm of the writer’s voice; Boxer wants to show her readers the glory of the fast-and-free blogosphere, but still hold their hands in case they get lost or confused; it’s hard to escape the implication that this is a book for beginners. But in the introduction, she writes, “This book, you’ll notice, bucks the usual blogging format”—as though its readers are already familiar with the standards of the medium. And if that’s the case, why would they need a guidebook?

It may be that Boxer’s book is unsuccessful in its aim to introduce neophytes to blog masterworks. But is that because it’s an impossible task? Or is it merely that she’s working in the wrong medium, trying to paint the landscape from a moving train? There’s certainly much value in Ultimate Blogs. It’s a compendium of short stories, naked confessions, inspired ideas. It’s a collection of creative, thought-provoking treatises on life in America, in Europe, in the Middle East and the Far East. It’s an album of historical snapshots in the writers’ lives. But it’s not, as the title professes, a categorical treasury of the form. For that, I suggest you stay online, start exploring, and make your own ultimate list.

Carolyn Grantham has allowed the Web to dominate her life. When not writing and editing online content for her day job, she is blogging about food, travel, and man’s inhumanity to language.

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