Fallout and Fall In

The hidden room, while abandoned, was hardly a secret. Everyone at Hotel Julian knew about it. As I had guessed, it was built during the hotel reconstruction phase in the late 1940’s. Designed to function as a nuclear fallout shelter, the room was built by Minerva’s late husband, who had died not from fallout, but from fall in. Climbing out one night after a bout in his room with a bottle of rum, he slipped and fell to the bottom of the well shaft, where he perished from the fall, from drowning, from hypothermia – or all of the above. He had gone missing for over a week before Minerva woke up one morning with a start, the noir thought of what probably happened to him suddenly dawning on her. I had been very nervous about Zoeasta making it back to her kittens, in spite of Minerva’s expressed confidence in the cat, and, initially, anyway, a bit ruffled at her criticisms of my current, what to call it, walk of life, and also suspicious of just how she came to know so much about me, I excused myself with the rational reason I wanted to be sure Zoeasta was back safe with her litter. Sylvie, for one, would never forgive me if she were to read that something awkward had befallen the kittens. Put another way, she’d shove a ball lightning up my butt if she found I was responsible for anything bad happening to any of the cats. Minerva insisted though I return to finish our conversation, she called it that, though I had said little, apparently my deeds speaking volumes to her already. Minerva’s house sat on the corner lot opposite the grocery of Hotel Julian. It took me less than a minute to run across the street and around the back of the hotel to the basement entrance, skip down the stairs, and check on Zoeasta, who I found licking her kittens, all five of them, I made certain, while they pummeled and sucked at her teats, all in a new padded and carpet lined box that sat just outside Eve’s door, and there stood Eve and Dawn glowering at me. We know where you’ve been, Eve said. You shouldn’t have taken Zoeasta with you. We were already planning on moving the litter closer to us and to her litter box and her food and water. I must have looked pathetic, and Dawn absolved me by saying the kittens were already about a week old and Zoeasta wasn’t away over an hour, and everybody seemed happy in their places. Are you going back to finish your conversation with Minerva, Eve asked. Minerva owns the hotel, you know. She keeps tabs on everything. Julian is her son. She makes decisions, Dawn added. And she’s decided she likes you, Eve said. Is that a good thing, I wondered, but kept the question to myself.

“Fallout and Fall In” is episode 33 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Caleb Crain and Becker-Posner Print Their Blogs

As we watch the coming of the end of books and the disappearance of newspapers, we note an increase in electronic self-publishing, blogs the obvious pedestrian example, but then, in an interesting twist, we see blogs subsequently published in more traditional print copy format. Two recent and noteworthy examples illustrate: Caleb Crain’s The Wreck of the Henry Clay (Lulu, 438 pages, $14.95), selections from his blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything, covering blog years 2003-2009, and Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism, a “best of” The Becker-Posner Blog (University of Chicago Press, 384 pages, $29.00).

Caleb Crain is a 19th century scholar and freelance writer with degrees from Columbia and Harvard who has written scholarly papers, a book, American Sympathy, and a novella, Sweet Grafton, as well as general interest articles and book reviews for the New Yorker and other prestigious publications. Richard Posner is a federal judge, Becker a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago. The ethos that Crain and Becker-Posner bring to their blogs adds validity to what some consider to be an environment rife with charlatanism and chicanery – the world of the blog. But their blogs improve the potential of the art of blogging by setting a high standard of quality and quantity, by elevating and advancing the long-term potential of self-publishing, and by engaging readers in the possibility for a democratic, egalitarian, and interactive conversation that is not available elsewhere to general readers, students, or others whose interest in the discussion of ideas may go beyond skimming the mosaic of the daily newspaper or the weekly magazine.

Crain and Becker-Posner have long lists of traditional publication credits. They don’t have to blog, nor do they have to self-publish. Crain’s blog performs a service to the reading community, so call it pro bono publico. Of particular interest are those posts that follow the print publication of his longer articles and that discuss his research; these posts have value for both the general reader and students. The links he provides are purposeful and meaningful, interesting and useful. Crain’s blog often generates civil comments and discussion, unlike some blogs that seem to foister the awry warrant. The Becker-Posner blog no longer accepts comments. Readers may miss the discussion, but the more popular a blog becomes, the less likely its founding readers will be able to follow the discussion – the traffic and the drive-by comments may become too distracting, the volley of retorts from the obsessive commenter tiresome.

Blogs like Crain’s and Becker-Posner’s are not without criticism from within their professional writing communities (it took the n+1 blog six months to finally review Crain’s blogbook). Why would a professional writer blog, thereby giving away content, setting a bad precedent? But no writer’s every word is going to see print, and the ones that come closest, the syndicated, the featured, the columnists, frequently suffer from a paucity of ideas, quality, and freshness (consider George Will and Stanley Fish). Bloggers are under no compunction to blog daily or weekly, but blog regularly enough to maintain a loyal readership, blog when they actually have something to say and the energy to say it.

Becker-Posner introduced their blog in December of 2004. In their first post, they said “Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon. It is a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge…The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.” Five years later, the Becker-Posner blog posted a notice announcing their blog’s print publication.

Crain, on his blog, explains that his blogbook comes with “six years of essays, which many of you will already have read, about dogs, torture, etymology, American history, gay marriage, political rhetoric, movies, tree climbing, indie rock, Mars, peak oil, anarchism, and literary criticism.” Crain’s blog is more personal and eclectic than the Becker-Posner blog, and the general interest reader may prefer it.

While some writers may wonder why some bloggers give away content, readers may wonder, now that the blogs are available in print form, why they would purchase a blogbook when the content is available free on-line. The answer is simple: because the general interest readers who follow blogs like Crain’s and Becker-Posner’s for any length of time value books. Books are what they want. But it’s that book interest that sparks the interest in the blog – following such a blog allows a reader to watch a professional writer writing a book, and more, to participate in that writing by interactively watching the work develop. The last time this happened was when magazines still serialized books in progress (Dickens, for example; or the New Yorker’s serialization of Capote or John McPhee, or its publication of Hersey’s Hiroshima – these were all followed by books). The difference is the initial self-publishing aspect of the blog. While the Becker-Posner blog is an example of self-publishing, their blogbook is not, while Crain’s blog and book are both self-published. Either way, the loyal reader will look forward to sitting down with a hard copy, like spending time with an old friend, reminiscing.

12-19-09 update: The  Becker Posner site has moved to Typepad and updated their site, citing technical problems with the old location. Comments are turned back on at the new site.