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Scholar and Blogger

Morning, nowadays, means coffee and the Times, as it did for my parents. But it also means something they never experienced: a trip across the Web. Slipping from link to link, occasionally falling in and spending a few minutes in one place, I pass from TNR to NYRB to Bookforum, from Atrios to Steve Benen, from Easily Distracted to University Diaries to Tenured Radical to TigerHawk, from Historiann and Arts & Letters Daily to Cliopatria and Athens & Jerusalem, from Andrew Sullivan to Megan McArdle to Ta-Nehisi Coates—and, for perspective, to the obituaries in the Telegraph.

Two very different pots of gold wait at the end of the rainbow. The main posts in these blogs, for all their differences, are sharp and often full of information, and they swarm with links to further blogs and reviews. At many sites, moreover, communities of commentators have taken shape. Scroll down from a post into the comment thread, and you find yourself in a virtual counterpart to Alcove No. 1 in the City College lunchroom, as it was many years ago—a place that buzzes with everything from critical intellects at play to bug-eyed ideologues who pout and shout. Running conversations, polyphonic and sometimes polymathic, enlarge on or contend with the main post. In the academic blogs that I like best, these illuminate the strange world in which I work.

For years now, one of my favorite pit stops on the long morning’s journey into consciousness has been A Don’s Life, the blog of the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard. One reason for that is Beard herself. A master historian of Rome, she has written learned and powerful books on the ways in which we moderns try to understand ancient sites and societies. She also produces, with formidable speed, sharp and provocative reviews and essays, in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and the TLS, the last of which she helps to edit. Her blog, like most others, offers everything from tiny but telling observations on the ironies of daily life to eloquent polemics against political and cultural follies. Like all first thoughts, these are not as considered as the arguments of Beard’s books, and sometimes it is understandable when they provoke furious reactions. But they are the first thoughts of a first-rate mind, cast in prose that gives pleasure, and they shift as easily and naturally from the present to antiquity as in the other direction. A discussion of toilets—and the lack of women’s rooms in Cambridge colleges—leads to Ally McBeal and her law firm’s unisex bathroom—which in turn leads to the Roman “multi-seaters” found in baths and other public places.

Blogs move quickly, and sometimes shut down just as quickly. Even the Wayback Machine does not provide easy access to all of the blogosphere’s past riches. That is one reason why it is wonderful to have a selection from A Don’s Life in book form: we aging Luddites like to reread things we enjoyed, and blogs can be hard to track back (especially if you’re reading in bed). Another is the perspective that the book form gives. Blogs strew the electronic landscape like autumn leaves in Vallombrosa. But A Don’s Life has special qualities that set it—and other blogs like it—apart from the mass, and this anthology helps to make them visible in a new way. Like Alan Bennett’s diary installments in the London Review of Books, It’s a Don’s Life has something of the compelling appeal of a great realist novel. Over the years, entries on cooking and family members, memories of education and travel, the tribulations of professional life and the queasy joys of prominence follow one another, each of them so vivid that as a whole they create the illusion of a life vividly known.

Bennett’s grumpy Yorkshire sensibility is very different from Beard’s cheerful take on life: it’s not easy to find a parallel in A Don’s Life for Bennett, cleaning out the drains at his country place and thinking, “I bet Tom Stoppard doesn’t have to do this.” Beard, by contrast, allows herself to enjoy her college, her university, her students, and even her colleagues. Snubs that Bennett would record with asperity make Beard laugh. When advertising for the radio program Desert Island Discs recently identified her as “Mary Beard, the physicist,” she found the mistake funny, both because she had done no physics since secondary school and “because it stopped me getting any idea above my station. Not only had Neil Nunes, or whoever wrote his script, not heard of me (and that's hardly surprising), I don't think that he -- or they -- had heard of Classics either. It makes you remember that being a relatively well known classicist is one thing, but to most of the world it is something akin to being a relatively well known beekeeper (if that's not unfair to beekeepers).”

The two writers’ professional interests, though equally fascinating, are quite different: where Bennett tells you what it was or is like to put on a show in the West End, Beard shows you how to think about what Catullus meant when he threatened (or did he?) to shove his cock into a critic’s throat. But they have a similar ability to catch and convey the texture of daily life—and a similar willingness to skewer the fatuous nonsense of Official Speak, from Conservative and Labour sources alike. The way to Professor Beard’s heart is not through praise of “the knowledge economy” or the “impact aim” of scholarly research—much less to explain, as King’s College London recently did when explaining academic job cuts, that they were intended "to create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment.” Beard translates Newspeak into plain language: “That is to say, never mind the intellectual consequences, if you are not making money -- bye bye.”

The life that Beard portrays, moreover, is one that it really matters to have represented in the public world. In America, everyone knows what academic humanists are like. The humanities professor is a man, trendy and pedantic, who speaks in gobbledygook, imposes ideological tests on his colleagues, and cannot write a clear English sentence. He spends as much time as he can away from his university, ideally in conferences in romantic places, and avoids students unless he can sleep with them. If he works at Oxford or Cambridge, he also devotes creative energy to finding ways of keeping bright students of color and from the working classes out of his college.

Anyone who believes in these caricatures should follow A Don’s Life for a few weeks. Doing this means courting mental exhaustion, since Beard keeps up a staggering schedule of travel and publication. Some of her most striking entries describe how she revises her old books and starts writing new ones; others describe conferences and lectures, museums and archaeological digs. But it also means seeing that this international intellectual, who seems to be simultaneously everywhere from Florence to Anaheim, remains rooted in local academic life.

As a professor of ancient history at Cambridge, Beard gives lectures and holds seminars, advises graduate students, sits on appointment and promotion committees. As a fellow of Newnham College, she recruits highly talented women students from state and private schools (to which, unlike most American academics, she travels, at her own expense, to talk about Classics); and counsels undergraduate concentrators; and worries about the coffee machine in the Senior Common Room—one of the many things that at least until recently made academic life more civil in Britain, even in these dark days of constant assessment. A Don’s Life is a sovereign remedy for uninformed and complacent cynicism.

A great blog needs a great blogger: but it also needs a group of readers who have the range, the flexibility, and the wit to keep up with the site’s proprietor or proprietors and to put their own twist on the discussions. These communities are hard to create and harder to maintain. Distance promotes discourtesy. Concerned trolls lurk under every electronic bridge, and discussions of controversial issues like the repatriation of antiquities, on which Beard has taken a strong position, attract commenters who have no commitment to the blog in question but still parachute in to flame the proprietor. All too often the participants in a thread sound like the citizens of the Simpsons’ Springfield in one of their periodic fits of moral indignation.

It is clearly very hard to find the mixture of topics and approaches, assertions and suggestions, that will keep a group of smart people engaged over the long term. Both the anonymous historian who blogged, some years ago, as Invisible Adjunct and the philosopher Hilary Bok, who blogged more recently as Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, achieved this for long periods. Both attracted readers who disagreed radically with them and one another, but did so in constructive ways. Both sparked discussions that were, at their best, models of acute and civil conversation. Both eventually gave up blogging, to my own and many others’ deep regret.

Beard’s community has long been, and remains, up to the challenge that she presents. (Full disclosure: I’m a loyal lurker and occasional commenter. I’ll follow her anywhere.) Deciding that she does not want a professional to index her revisionist book on the Roman Triumph, which cleared away a vast overgrowth of scholarly conjectures with the efficiency of a scholarly weed whacker and replaced them with radically new ways to think about those “apparently self-confident ceremonies,” she finds that the imagined “days of leisurely re-reading in an armchair never quite materialise.” Sitting up late, worried about that hardest of problems—what to leave out—she remembers Keith Hopkins’s index jokes (“Methods, authentication from fragmentary evidence, passim”) and offers her own homage: “Facts, fragility of, passim.” Commenters materialize on cue, tracing neat epicycles, silly and serious. One proposes an Oxford Book of Grumpy Scholars Complaining About Indexes (sadly, that is a book I’d love to read). Another describes how indexing his own and a friend’s book brought out themes neither of them had seen: “I discovered, for example, that for an avowed atheist I was remarkably engaged with God.” Other threads yield everything from untranslatable Latin puns to unforgettable conversations at urinals. (Winston Churchill to his successor, who asked why he was stand-offish when they met at the loo in the House of Commons: “you will nationalise anything big you see.”)

No, it is not, exactly, high culture; but it is a new form, at once individualistic and collective, and It’s a Don’s Life, I mean the book, reveals it at its imperfect but fascinating best. Sometimes the blogosphere is as trivial and mean-spirited as the mainstream media that bloggers criticize. At its best, as this lively and deeply intelligent book shows, it fosters vital new communities and conversations. Floreat!

Anthony Grafton teaches European history at Princeton. 

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