Robert Daseler puts book blogs under the microscope

Some days all a blogger can manage are quick, newsy items. (Those are what many blog readers click for, anyway, I think.) Other days, ideally, you’ll get much more.

As book blogs proliferate and evolve, and as publishers and writers increasingly view them as a potential marketing avenue, I’m experiencing longer periods of news and galley burnout and spending more time puzzling over the potentially very great disconnect between book blogging and reading literature.

Last week an avid blog reader and email pal happened to send along his own thoughts about the strengths and limitations of the blogs, placing them in a larger sociological context. The following opinion, extracted with permission from that email, was written by Robert Daseler

For some time I have intended to set down some of my thoughts about blogging in an email to you, but I keep telling myself that any thoughts I have about blogging today were probably familiar to you two years ago. Where blogging is concerned and in the field of contemporary literature I am merely a tourist.

The way that blogging has grown at an exponential rate suggests that it is filling a very widespread and common need that hadn’t been identified before, but what is the need, and whose is it? You are too young to have seen this, but when mainframe computers moved into the workplace, before home computers became common, there quickly appeared a kind of person I had not observed before, the computer person. I don’t mean just the technical people but also the supervisory people who seemed to be totally immersed in computer-related business. When I worked at the county schools office in L.A., there was an administrator who had formerly been a superintendent for a small school district. At the county schools office he was in charge of IT, though we didn’t call it that then. He was in his 40s and had a crewcut and wore pocket protectors and always seemed to be harried. His one passion in life, one sensed, was data processing. It was the only topic he wanted to discuss at any length. I hadn’t known him long enough to know whether he had always been monomaniacal or if data processing had taken him over like an alien invader.

Then I began noticing other people whose lives seemed to be devoted entirely to computer programming and computer systems. I used to wonder what their lives would have been like if computers had not been invented. Would they have been engineers? Bookkeepers? They all seemed to have the same personality: humorless, driven, impatient with the messiness of ordinary human life though sometimes claiming an intense interest in science fiction or basketball, or studying Japanese in their spare time. Had there always been people like that?

Now I read somewhere that there are something like two million (or is it more?) blogs just in the United States. So it’s a very big phenomenon, and it has created an information network that is difficult (at least for me) to conceptualize. It used to be, in the world before computers, that a well informed and well connected person would read a lot of books and magazines. Such a person usually lived in the vicinity of a good university library. Staying well informed required a lot of work, and it wasn’t possible to be really up-to-the-minute in any field. I remember once, when I was working as a reference librarian in a university library (I had this job very briefly), a philosophy professor came in and asked me if Martin Heidegger was still alive. I checked a few print sources, but the best I could do was to tell the professor that Heidegger had still been alive a year earlier when a certain biographical listing had been compiled. In those days, a well informed person was necessarily a bookish person, a scholarly person, somebody who spent a lot of his or her time in libraries.

I suppose most book bloggers are bookish people. They wouldn’t blog about books if they didn’t love books, would they? But it would not be hard to imagine a book blogger who hadn’t actually picked up a book in months. One could maintain a blog on books and draw entirely from online sources, spending one’s spare time playing pool or watching baseball. I find, when I take the time to visit four or five book blogs of a morning, that I feel rather as if I were eavesdropping on gossip about people I don’t know: what Nick Hornby said about Neal Pollack, or what Dave Eggers thinks about Stanley Crouch. And I find myself wondering: Who are these people, and why should I care about them?

On the other hand, the book blogs constitute a community of sorts, populated by people who care tremendously about books and reading and contemporary literature, and outside of a few urban centers such as New York City, such a community hardly existed before. Even in New York City, people who shared an interest in literature and writing could get together only so often, whereas the blogs roll along day to day, and anybody anywhere can drop in at any time. I can hear you saying, “Well, duh!” I am, I admit, rather slow on the uptake, and I am still a little in awe at the way virtual communities have sprung up and what they imply for the way we understand the world around us. I suppose this interests me particularly because since moving up to northern California almost eight years ago, I have been cut off from intellectual discourse and a circle of well informed friends.

Selected background reading:

Your thoughts are welcome.

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