Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why I blog, or, Why you should blog

Not only have I not posted in nearly a month (sorry!), I've missed my own blogiversary! That's right, Wynken de Worde has been up and running for over a year now, which in blog years might mean we've hit cranky adolescence. Because this is a celebration, I'll try to keep the crankiness to a minimum, although some of it is to my point.

I started this blog largely because I wanted to be able to direct students toward an example of what studying "early modern book history" might entail. In order to get students into my courses, I have to reach out to them and get them excited enough that they want to apply for it. I can't always rely on their teachers conveying what it is that they might get out of the experience of studying rare books, but I can get some of that across by sending them to a blog. (This is where the generation gap starts to come in, with some colleagues saying "hunh?" and some students already, I suspect, wondering if blogs are already been-there-done-that.) I really hadn't thought through what my intentions or much else beyond that.

Here are some of the things that I've discovered as I've figured this thing out:

1) Whoo-hoo this is fun! One of the best compliments I've gotten about this blog is when a early modern professor friend told me that he liked it in part because it really sounded like I was enjoying myself. The funness aspect has in part to do with the genre (I would never say "funness" in my other forms of academic writing!). It has something, too, to do with the fact that I blog about a subject that is still relatively new to me. One of the great joys of starting a new field years after researching another field is that there's really not a lot of pressure to make big discoveries or to formulate big theories or arguments. I don't mean to say that I don't make arguments about books, or reading, or editing, or any of those other things. But trust me, if this was a blog about writing about Shakespeare and performance, I'd feel much less permission to do a post that says, essentially, "Isn't this neat?" Remember those embroidered bindings and the Folger and BL versions of the same pattern of David and Goliath? How cool was that?! Or those pointing fingers? Those were pretty neat, right? It's not that there is more funness with books than with performance, just that I'm more aware of it since my intended audience is not other people with books on this subject, but those who think it's cool.

2) People read this thing! I realize this sounds obvious, but it's true. I hadn't really thought much about the blogging community or about who might be reading the blog aside from the potential students who would be coming this way. As it turns out, potential students do read this thing, if only to coach themselves for their application essay. But so do people I've never met. Some of you are other book historians, some of you are book collectors, some of you are librarians. Some of you are friends of mine, which skews you towards being former grad students, if not current faculty of something at somewhere. Some of you are people who have blogs that I now read. The vast majority of you are utterly unknown to me, and I'm especially grateful for your comments and links and attention. You're not reading this because you have to, or because you know me, but because there is something in this subject matter of books and/or early modern culture that speaks to you. And that thrills both the nerd and the educator in me.

3) (Warning: this is where I start to get both cranky and ultra-earnest, a truly adolescent combination.) There are some great early modern blogs out there. But there are not nearly enough! You can see my sidebar for some of my favorite early modern and bookish blogs. I love the ones that teach me something new, or that make me care about something it might not have cared about before. There are some great blogs out there, on all sorts of subjects, that do exactly these things. But when I hosted the early modern Carnivalesque a few months back, and was trolling through the blogosphere looking for posts to include, I began to realize what I had previously been reluctant to conclude: blogs on early modern literature that meet these criteria seem to be few and far between. I came across a bunch of history blogs, and lots of medieval blogs, and oh-so-many blogs about academic life. But where was the blogger writing about teaching Paradise Lost? The excitement of Jacobean revenge tragedies? The struggle to recover early modern women's writing? The costs of the pressure to study Shakespeare over almost all other early modern English writers?

I'm just coming up with topics off the top of my head--almost anything could make a compelling post about early modern literature. The problem isn't that the subject matter doesn't lend itself to a post, it's a larger failure to understand what we have to gain from blogging about it.

Over the years there's been a fair amount of conversation about the worthiness of blogging. Some disparage it as a bad move professionally, especially for job seekers; some defend it. Outside of academia, it has been seen as the redemption of journalism (Andrew Sullivan's post on Why I Blog is a nice example of someone touting the power of an immediate connection to readers in a way that print can't replicate). There are countless stories about how blogging can be your key to fame and fortune (the New York Times's recent story on the disillusionment of blogging serves as counter-example).

All of those stories are beside the point for my purposes. You will not become rich and famous blogging about early modern books. You will not save journalism from its current state of disrepair. You will not get yourself an exciting new job.

But you can do something important: you can help people understand why it matters. Why do we read these old books? Why do we study old things? What can we learn from events that happened nearly half a millennium ago? Why should we care about lives that are long long over? I have answers to these questions. And I bet you do, too. If you didn't, you wouldn't be studying what you study, teaching what you teach, doing what you do. Show me a librarian who doesn't care about books and information and I'll show you a pig flying over the moon.

Here's my point: Early modern stuff matters. Books matter. The humanities matter. In a time when money is scarce and stupid ideas about universities and the humanities are flying about like nobody's business, we should be speaking up and making the case for the value of reading and teaching and thinking. You can do this in a blog. See my points above--it's fun, and not only will people read what you write, they will be people with whom you might not otherwise get to converse. (Seriously. I've gotten more feedback on this blog than I have on the last article I wrote.)

Forget writing about the horrors of your graduate exams or complaining about your colleagues and administrators. Don't write about your research in terms that only other specialists can understand. Push your boundaries beyond pictures of your pets and garden and latest vacation. Tell me about the research and teaching that excites you. Tell me about the latest book that you read. Tell me something that will teach me something new and make me think about something differently. Please. I don't know that I really achieve these grandiose aims in my posts. But I try to. That's why I blog. And that's why I'd like to see you blog, too.

Thanks for sharing my blogiversary, folks! And many, many thanks for reading. I'll be back soon, with pictures and words on early modern books, and lots of funness, I promise.