Blogs and the End of Editorials

Writing in Slate yesterday, Timothy Noah suggests that newspapers should do away with the editorial page and expand the space they devote to "the signed column or op-ed."    Although I'm an avid reader of some opinion columns, I've never bothered much with the official editorials, and Noah's helped me to understand why.   He also, without intending to, addresses one of the things that frustrates me about certain elements of the blogosphere:

...editorials typically lack sufficient length to marshal evidence and lay out a satisfactory argument. Instead, they tend toward either timidity, at one extreme, or posturing, at the other. Almost every editorial I've ever read in my life has fallen into one of two categories: boring or irresponsible.

He points out that when the New York Times invented the op-ed page, they moved toward longer pieces -- typically 750 words or so -- and that "you can -- just barely -- fit a satisfactory argument into 750 words."  This mirrors my own experience.

But it is a lot of work (and takes a fair amount of skill) to craft a 750 word argument, and it is not typically something that can be dashed off.  It goes against the grain of the immediacy and spontaneity which is one of the hallmarks of blogs. 

That short, immediate form works very well for those blogs that are primarily intended as pointers -- Boing-Boing is among the best of these.     Wonkette achieved deserved attention during the last presidential election for making excellent use of the short form with a mixture of linking and satiric comment. 

Using blogs as a vehicle for commentary or analysis, however, is more problematic, and I have more trouble coming up with examples where I think it's being done well.  Too often, what passes for commentary is a heat-of-the-moment emotional response passing for opinion.  Most of the chattering in the library blogosphere about Michael Gorman's various utterances (and the terrible damage that they're doing to librarianship!)  falls into that category.  I suppose it's cathartically satisfying for the authors to vent in that way.  And perhaps it is comforting to many of their readers to have their own biases reflected.  But I don't see that it moves the discourse forward at all.

All of these doubts are what I carry with me every time I open the "compose a new post" window here, of course.  Keeping the blog up has been useful for me in that it pushes me to think my own opinions through more carefully and to work harder at expressing them well.   Whether it is useful for anybody else remains a mystery.

On Writing Well

Lynn was browsing the bookshelves.  I was curious.  It was just after dinner, and I was finishing my wine, stretched out in my accustomed spot on the living room couch.   With all of the travel this spring, I haven't been keeping up with my daily reading, so I was only up to a February issue of the New York Review of Books, and a great article about Potemkin and Catherine the Great.  But I couldn't sink into it, distracted as I was by Lynn's systematic scanning of the shelves.

When we moved into this house (five years ago) we commingled our books.  (It was a big step).  But we arranged them only very loosely, so finding a given book that we think we have usually requires a careful hunt.  And there's a lot of  territory to cover.  She was obviously looking for something particular, but I knew better than to ask.  She wouldn't tell me until she was ready anyway.

She pulled one down and flipped through it.  "A-ha!" she cried.  "This is it!"

"Okay, what!?"

She came over and sat next to me, a big grin on her face.  "This is the book that you were reading in the library in Milwaukee."  She was holding Zinsser's "On Writing Well."

My JMLA editorial for the July issue is called "I See Blog People" and I lead into it by recounting a memory from my undergraduate days that involves my reading a few lines in a book, the title of which I can no longer recall.  Lynn, as cover editor, uses my editorial as the springboard for the cover design (I've tried to dissuade her from that approach, but with no success).  The July cover is due now, so she'd been reading and re-reading my essay, trying to come up with a cover idea.  She was convinced that Zinsser is the book I was reading.

I was sceptical.  "I don't know...  It doesn't quite feel right."  I was trying to get that memory to clear, trying to remember the color of the book, the context of the paragraph. 

She was a little crestfallen, thinking that she'd solved the mystery, and a bit disappointed that I wasn't going along with it.  "But look, this is exactly the way that you write!"  She read me a couple of passages that have the yellow college highlighter mark across them.  "And this is your copy, these are your highlights!"  (A yellow highlighter?  Did I ever really use a yellow highlighter in college?)

There's certainly no denying the influence that Zinsser's had on my writing.  I'm one of those who believes that the only guides to writing in American English that anyone needs are Zinsser and Strunk & White.  So why was I resisting?

Maybe it was just that I wanted it to remain mysterious.  That bit of memory marks a turning point for me.  I've been stringing words together on paper since I was five years old (that poem about Superman that I wrote while I was in bed with a fever), and by the time I got to college had filled many notebooks.  But it was only then that I began to understand writing as craft, and began to appreciate the mysterious and marvelous power of carefully constructed sentences, the dance that the writer goes through, creating sentences to express a thought, and then listening to the sentences themselves as they lead to new, and often startling thoughts that the writer didn't know were coming.  If I know that the book is Zinsser, then the iconic memory is altered, and I like it the way it is.

I often say that one of the reasons that I'm such a happy guy, in general, is that I live by the principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'll believe what it's most fun to believe.  I can't prove that this is the book I was reading, so I'm going to hold my memory inviolate, and not believe that it was Zinsser.

Even though it might have been. 

Twitchy Librarian Bloggers

Oh lord, they're at it again.  Why are so many librarian bloggers so thin-skinned?  Why go so ballistic when their precious passion is questioned?  You'd think someone was insulting their brand new puppy.

Cronin is foolishly dismissive, unnecessarily insulting, and, at least in his quick dismissal of Wikipedia, flat wrong (although I hasten to add that I'm not convinced that Wikipedia represents a tremendous advance -- I do think it's an intriguing possibility that should be given lots of room to roam).

But when Cronin points out the narcissism and banality of many blogs and says, "...some blogs are highly professional, informative and readable, but most are not," it seems to me he's just stating an obvious fact.   And while I wouldn't have applied the adjective "hapless," I think its a very fair question to wonder why so many people have taken to blogging, and who they think they're speaking to.  I know I wonder about that myself every time I sit down to compose an entry. 

But to the partisans, to those who have pledged their allegiance to the salvation of the world through blogging, any criticism or questioning amounts to heresy.  Time to break out the tar & feathers.  I suppose they don't notice that they're just throwing ammunition to the critics. 

One other thing -- while the fussings of the Cronins and Gormans are scarcely worth bothering with (time will dispense with them), and the rantings of the easily offended bloggers are simply annoying, I am troubled by the sentiments represented by one of the commenters to Steven Cohen's post.   Chris dismisses Cronin's article by saying that his opinion is "still only as valid as an opinion as anyone else's".  This is a dangerous notion.   My opinion on managing academic medical libraries is much more valid than that of a Barnes & Noble clerk.  Keith Richards' views on playing blues guitar matter a lot more than mine.  Karl Rove is (like it or not) the go-to guy for figuring out how to manipulate the current Washington political machine, and Quentin Tarantino has more valid opinions about 21st century cinema than just about anybody.  Blogging injects a very useful and important element of egalitarianism into the public discourse, but let's not get carried away into shoddy and silly thinking.  Sure, everybody has an equal right to express their opinion; that doesn't mean that every opinion is equally worthy of being heard.

The Library Week Tour

Before the trip, I imagined that I'd get at least one short entry done each day, to document my progress through three different presentations in three different cities over the course of four days (topped off by a mini-Pigs gig).  Didn't happen.  I suppose a real blogger would have figured out how  to steal a few minutes here and there, but I'm not at that point yet.  Trying to get mentally energized for the next session, trying to stay on top of email, and just dealing with the travelling sucked up all the time. 

The most interesting day was the Allen Press Seminar in DC, primarily because of the nature of the audience.   I heard Guy say that there were over 150 registrants, and I suspect less than half a dozen of them were librarians.  I was on the first panel, so I was able to get my butterflies out of the way early and enjoy the rest of the presentations, all of which were quite intriguing.   Not unexpectedly, there was a certain amount of hostility from this audience to the NIH plan -- Betsy handled it extremely well.  But there was also much more support for open access options among the group than I might have expected.  It is very clear  that even those publishers who wish they'd never heard the phrase were seeing the writing on the wall and looking harder at different economic models than they would have if they hadn't been pushed in that direction.

The most fun of the three was the "debate" with Rick Anderson on Thursday at the North Carolina Serials Conference.  We'd done a little bit of preparation ahead of time via email, so we knew what the main points were that we'd each try to make.   We kept it very informal and relaxed (somebody came up to me later and said it was like listening to people just sitting around a living room talking -- exactly the effect that we were after).  Much as I enjoy doing the prepared parts of a presentation, it's always the questions and discussions that I like the best.  And this format allowed us to cover a lot of the differing points of view about various aspects of open access.  Although I've known of Rick for quite some time via his writing on the various lists, I'd never laid eyes on him before, and we turned out to be a very good match.

A pretty intense week, but extremely satisfying.   Now I'm gearing up for the next round...  Maybe I'll do a better job tracking it all with the blog.

Library Juice

I haven't posted much here lately because I've been devoting much of the little time I have for writing to my next editorial for the Journal of the Medical Library Association.   Writing the editorials is very un-bloglike.   Even though they're only 2,000 words or so, they take weeks to evolve, as I go through a slow process of writing, and rewriting, and testing the sentences and the thoughts to try to figure out what I really think about the issue at hand.

This time, I'm writing about blogging, so I've been reading a lot in the blogosphere. points me to Library Juice, where Rory Litwin has one of the sanest bits of writing about blogs that I've yet seen.    The explosion of blog technology (i.e., tools that enable people to easily post to the Internet) has indeed created a craze where people are using the tools for all sorts of purposes, whether they are really the right tools or not.  The technology is indeed a transformative one -- but we're still not very close to seeing what those transformations will be comprised of.  Remember that the printing press didn't instantaneously create the print culture that we all grew up in -- the technology enabled it, but it took decades of experimentation with that technology before the transformation matured.

Getting the Sentences Right

Rolling Stone uses much of its current issue to memorialize Hunter S. Thompson, "the man who embodied  the spirit of the magazine for more than thirty years."   As a man, Thompson was a fringe character living on the edge, but as a writer he was a meticulous, disciplined craftsman.  Thompson believed in the sacred importance of writing, and was dedicated to getting it right.  Every sentence mattered.  The fact that his sentences were so strikingly different from his predecessors' made the work very difficult, but intensely exhilirating.

In his Paris Review interview,  Hemingway said he'd re-written the ending of A Farewell to Arms 44 times.   Asked what the problem was, he said, "Getting the words right." 

Over the past week, I've been immersing myself in the blogosphere.  There's some useful stuff out there, to be sure, but most of it is artless, bland and redundant.   The best blogs, not surprisingly, come from people with a journalism background of some sort -- people who have a bit of training and expertise in the discipline of moving a thought along a few paragraphs and making the journey interesting and insightful.  They compose, even when they're writing quickly.  They pay attention to the sentences.

Most blog writing isn't composed.  It's spewed, as if all I have to do is connect my brain to the keyboard, and let the words tumble out.   However they end up on the screen is fine, because I've got to get on to the next thing!  The result is not only sentences that are a chore to get through, but a lack of critical thought on the part of the writer.   The instant comment is the hallmark of the blog -- here's my gut reaction, given without reflection as to whether or not what I'm saying is really coherent. The process of revision, and rewriting (and the incredible usefulness of editors) is that it forces the writer to confront what has been written, to go over it again, to face up to it, to make sure that every sentence is true.

Blog Magic

Last week, just a few hours after I posted a trackback re: Gorman to somebody's library blog (I forget which), I got an email from Susan Barribeau in Madison, Wisconsin, asking if I grew up in Kaukauna.  We went to several years of grade school together.    Now our paths can cross electronically in ways that would've been highly unlikely not very long ago.

She scanned in our 3rd grade class picture.  I'm on the bottom row, 4th from the left.   Lynn says the lack of a beard confuses her, but I don't think I've changed at all.


What I Read

Tom Roper sends me a note in which he questions the usefulness of the Typelists on TypePad's blogs.  He says, "Why on earth should anyone else in the world care what I listen to or read?"  He quotes from TypePad: "one of the best ways to present your identity is by presenting supplemental information that's important to you, such as the media you consume."  He's troubled by the narcissism inherent in blogging, and I agree with that.  But I think there's another way to look at the lists -- there are indeed people whose reading habits matter to me.  I recall  Mark Frisse saying that one of the ways that he kept up with the issues that were important in his professional world was by tracking what the people that he respected were reading.  In the never-ending struggle to wade through the morass of information that bombards us, I'll take any guide that I can get.  If Mark Funk tells me that there's a new Skeletons CD available, I'm going to get it.  If Mike Flannery tells me that he's found a new book on the political development of the media that he thinks is worthwhile, I'm going to look into it.   If I find that Tom Roper is listing a new album by Robert Wyatt (who I've never heard of) or a book by William J. Mitchell (likewise), I'm going to consider it worth looking into.  The value of the lists comes not from what they might tell anybody about me  but that they might serve as a useful signpost to someone else.

Why Bother?

I was cruising through Battles' Library: an unquiet history a couple of weeks ago, looking for some good bits to stick into my NAHSL presentation, and I came across his description of Jonathan Swift's scepticism about pamphlets and broadsides and all the new-fangled publishing options that the printing press had made possible. And then I look at the Sunday New York Times that day, and saw the cover photo of Jack Germond and R.W. Apple Jr. looking nervously over the shoulders of wonkette. The comparison of pamphleteering to blogging was just the sort of thing I was look for, so I stuck it into the talk.

Not that I've wanted to do a blog myself. For one thing, I hate the word -- although I suppose now we're stuck with it. More importantly, I don't quite see the point. Isn't it just a ridiculously narcissistic thing to throw this stuff on the web and think that anyone is interested? But in that light, all artistic endeavor is narcissistic.

So yesterday, as I was sitting on the couch waiting for Marian to bring Lynn home from the airport, the bug bit me. I thought of Tom Roper's blog, which seemed fairly sensible and interesting. Maybe I should do something like that. I hoped it was a passing fancy.

But this morning, the notion is still with me. So it seems that I ought to do the experiment. The sun is setting over the lake and I'm watching the swans drift by the dock. I've got my feet up on the rail and I'm sipping this nice Coppola Bianco while I listen to Alison Krauss' heavenly voice drift over the water. I'll give it a try.