Like the best neologisms, “blog,” has always seemed onomatopoeic. Originally coined by Peter Merholz in 1999, it sits, quite accidentally, at the intersection of some rich connotative byways: “blah blah blah,” “logorrhea,” “blather.” Acoustically, it evokes both a burp and a yawn, seeming to anticipate the toss-away, fervent, carefree prose it would come to define. One doesn’t craft a blog, just as one doesn’t plan to puke. One pukes. One blogs.
This makes Sarah Boxer’s winning, if occasionally slight, anthology, Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, a small historical moment: the first time blog prose has been given that old dead-tree treatment. The result highlights some telling differences between the World Wide Web and the world of books and puts a spotlight on the secret loneliness and earnestness underneath these bold snatches from the “wild web.” These writers, despite the famed interconnectedness of the web, seem uncommonly starved for connection.
Reactions to Boxer’s anthology have so far been mixed, primarily because critics seem to think it doesn’t know what it is. “Cold toast,” pronounced The New York Observer. Dead coral, concluded the Los Angeles Times. Boxer, in her candid introduction, admits that the anthology required excluding: (1) the kinds of blogs most associated with “blogging” per se, because of their dependence on abject timeliness and continual updates; and (2) links, which even the most entrenched Luddite now knows, are central to the web experience and impossible to render in a traditional, bound book. The result, of course, is far from any kind of “ultimate” exemplar of blogging: It’s a book of blogs. But Boxer must have known from the beginning (even if her critics didn’t) that she was compiling an oxymoron. Like blue blood that turns red when brought to air, blogs become something different when grounded to the page. But what exactly do they become? Has the anthology turned water into wine--as it were--or wine into water?
At the very least, Boxer acts as an able sommelier: She provides a sample of decent, and often hard-to-find, treats that one can later quaff properly, links and all, using the Internet. This is an especially worthwhile service since some of the more lesser-known entries would be nearly impossible to find otherwise. (Given the fact that there are, according to Boxer, 100 million blogs, 15 million of them active, and only twenty-seven entries in the anthology--this has got to be, statistically speaking, the most exclusive anthology ever published.) Some of these uncovered gems include Ironic Sans, a playful and inspired drawing board of ideas and images including pre-pixilated t-shirts; It’s raining noodles! the zany, ecstatic creation of 19-year-old Singapore resident Angelique Michelle Chan; and Click opera, a Berlin-based British expat’s ruminations on everything from Japanese toys to conspicuous consumption’s effect on design theory.
The printed page lends even the better-known blogs a weight and space, a silence, that changes them. Too often blog-reading is like eating food while running to make the bus (or, more literally, while pretending to do what you’re being paid to do): a gulp here, a nibble there, a wave of reflux, another gulp. Reading Ultimate Blogs, however, is a sit-down meal: napkin-bibbed, mood-music set, knife and fork at the ready. The best entries benefit from this added focus: for instance, The New Yorker's Alex Ross’s inspired riffs on the history of suppressed applause in classical music, or Gary Becker and Richard Posner’s counterintuitive take on sex selection in China. At its best, blog writing is like one of Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional book reviews: Each one, if unpacked, could be its own book. Other pieces, however, no matter how officiously plated, remain fast food: Go Fug Yourself, a derisive fashion site, comes up slight on the page, as does El Guapo in DC, the adventures of an anonymous Guatemalan-American in Washington, D.C.
What surprised me most about reading Ultimate Books was how voyeuristic it felt. Many of the selections, whether intellectual or personal, political or whimsical, were written with a kind of in-your-face loneliness that is perhaps more palatable--or less conspicuous--on the web. This can be searingly poignant, as when Julia Litton writes plainly about one of her eleven miscarriages: “I feel quite peaceful, actually. The uncertainty of the past week was very hard for me.” Or an American expat speculating on his life (and future death) in Sweden: “Still stranger is to think of growing old and dying here. Will the husband and I end up in an old people’s home, together or separately? … Who will come to visit me? And who will put flowers on my grave?”
I went online and read some of the blogs themselves, to see if reading these heartfelt and intensely private admissions in their natural habitat felt as hugely voyeuristic as it did on the page. It wasn’t even close. I suspect that’s become because the web is so less intimate a technology than a physical book, and therefore so much better configured for the demands of confession. The illusion of a bound book--the illusion that made novels seem like such a corrupting influence on the kept women of the 19th century--is that it is written only for you, the reader, even if millions of copies of the same object have been published. A book is a public enterprise disguised as a private one. (The quality of a prose style is measured, to a large extent, by how well it maintains this private hypnosis between author and reader.) A blog, however, is quite explicitly public. Like personal ads or bathroom graffiti or Martin Luther’s 95 theses, they are composed for public consumption. The readership is not you but you all.
Sarah Boxer has called blog-writing id writing--I might call it y’all writing. When writing for y’all, after all, there needs to be a base-line insouciance, an insistence that one isn’t writing for the MSM (Mainstream Media); that one doesn’t care who does or does not hear it--a contrarian, underdog valence that undergirds even the most dryly academic (Becker/Posner) and big league (Ross, Matthew Yglesias) of the anthology’s entrants. And yet when stolen out of the Times Square of the web and sequestered on the page, that attitude seems much less ballsy and carefree and much more fragile and earnest. Such a public forum, ironically, invites confession. Baring themselves to the world, these writers are bravely eager to connect, a desire, one suspects, the Internet can help enlarge far better than it can help fulfill. In the bazaar of y’alls, everyone seems to want to be, and to find, a you.
For the loneliness, unevenness, and frequent poignancy of Ultimate Blogs, imagine an anthology of some other y’all genre--an anthology of the Best Bathroom Graffiti, say, or Best Personal Ads, with one addition: author bios. It’s fitting that Ultimate Blogs contains the best, and most human, “notes about the contributor” section I’ve read in recent years. Most author notes, as everyone knows, evade the bad habits, failed marriages, and mistaken jobs that are the most telling part of any life, in favor of a person’s most public legacy: his or her achievements. Not here. Boxer’s biographies are as confessional as her selections. We learn how the breakdown of Nina Paley’s marriage led to the creation of her animated adaptation of the Ramayana, or why Tony Karon stopped working with the African National Congress after Mandela’s release from prison. These glimpses into the authors’ lives encapsulate the best quality of this book--and of blogs, generally. They provide a rousing awareness that many people, in many places, are thinking, feeling, and eager to connect--even if most of us, separated by the old-fashioned fact of distance, cannot reach them.
Jacob Rubin is a writer in New York City. His writing has appeared in Slate and New York magazine and will be anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009.
By Jacob Rubin