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.