April 20, 2006

"That stuff" and "the genre of 'blog'"

Over at Crooked Timber, Brian Weatherson said nice things about Far from the Madding Gerund, without even seeing a copy.

Language Log is having a book published of their best posts for the last few years. Although there won’t be anything new in this, it should be a fun record of what has long been to my mind one of the best academic blogs around. [...]

When I started blogging it was with the hope that it would genuinely be an alternative publishing source. That is, it would be a place where I put things that were finished pieces, but which wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t end up in traditional print journals. But in fact it has turned into a repository for transient thoughts, not a publishing place. Language Log has, to a large extent, gone the other way.

In response, Lauren Squires at Polyglot Conspiracy defended us from the charge of excessive fit and finish:

I don’t think [Language Log has] largely gone the way of a “publishing place” any more than most (academic/political) blogs. They still write on things that just kind of pop up as interesting that aren’t researched uber-scientifically (Google’s one of their fave research tools), and they write colloquially and personally. Especially considering their academic field, this still feels QUITE different from published writing. And it’s also very internet-centric in a lot of ways.

But Lauren, astutely, raised another concern:

What’s most difficult to process about this transition of blogs to books, for me, is how to deal with the inherently linked-up nature of blogs. That’s part of what people like about them, part of what also makes them so interesting: they are so interconnected with other online content. I’m curious to see how that shakes out in print in the Log’s book (which I will definitely be buying, or at least investigating in the store).


So this is what I’m most intrigued to see, and Pullum doesn’t mention it in the book announcement: how will hyperlinks, references to other blogs, etc. be treated? If you take away that stuff, is it really worth printing? What I mean is, may as well you just call them essays, rather than posts? To what extent does that stuff (such technical terminology I’m using here, I know! “that stuff”!) define the genre of “blog,” and what’s special about blog material (what makes it worth reprinting in another medium and another market) otherwise?

About a year ago, when we were still thinking about whether and how to turn some LL posts into a book, Tom Sumner (editor of The Informed Citizen Series at William, James & Co.) brought up the same issue:

To make a book like this as much fun as the blog is, [you should] remove some links and references to other posts. Footnotes or other glossing should be kept to a minimum, and the posts should be as self-contained as possible.

You can see that Tom is being polite here, but he's politely suggesting something that sounds very much like actual work. This seemed disturbingly unbloglike, at least to me, for whom blogging is entirely recreational. My response was:

The links in our posts are of three kinds:

1. links to the things we're talking about -- newspaper stories, journal articles, other people's blog entries, software or sevices, and so forth.

2. links to other Language Log posts, put in so that we don't have to summarize them and/or to get people to read them.

3. other informational links, essentially to help readers who want to learn more, and (speaking for myself) as aids to memory for my own future reference.

I think that we probably do want to keep crucial references of type 1, though they might be given in parentheses or square brackets rather than footnotes.

Most links of type 2 could be deleted, except where the content is required to understand what is being said. We could either omit posts requiring such links, or provide a short summary of the linked material. Where the referenced posts are also being reprinted, a cross-reference could be provided.

Nearly all references of type 3 could be deleted without problems.

In this connection, though, I was intrigued by the way that David Foster Wallace's piece on talk radio (in the most recent Atlantic) was laid out -- in effect it has footnotes, but the scope of the footnotes is indicated with colored backgrounding, and the footnotes are actually given as sidebars in boxes with the same colored backgrounds.

This may be more readable than conventional footnotes. It's certain more readable than the interminable endnotes that DFW uses in some of his other writings. And without question it looks hip. Of course, I imagine it's expensive in typographical and printing terms, since it requires special layout and multiple-color printing.

But something of this kind, if it could be done without much extra work or expense, might be a good way to present some of what blog links are good for.

I was talking about "Host", by David Foster Wallace from the April, 2005 Atlantic. The internet version uses mouse-over colors and curious little pop-up windows -- which in my opinion don't work as well as the typography used in the paper magazine, described in my note to Tom. You can get a slightly better idea of the typography from this .pdf of page 5 of Wallace's article, taken from the copy which I downloaded at the time (since I'm a subscriber, of course, as you also should be). And the .pdf is still not as easy on the eyes and the mind as the paper version, which used colored backgrounds rather than colored outlines to link marginalia with phrases in the main text.

Anyhow, Tom started from the general idea of marginal notes keyed to the text, and found a way to do it that works very well, I think, without the indulgence of expensive multiple-color printing. You can check out his solution in the .pdf of the first 20 pages of chapter one that's available on the William, James & Co. web site for the book. It works even better in the context of the physical object, in my opinion, though you'll need to get a copy in order to see if you agree. And the beauty part is that Geoff and I didn't have to rewrite anything.

The resulting book retains the flavor of a blog -- or at least of our blog -- while taking on some of the advantages of a book. You can read it in the bathtub, for example. And as it turns out, I'm old-fashioned enough that well-printed words bound into a book acquire some mysterious extra oomph for me, even in rooms without plumbing. Paging through the blog entries in book form, I keep asking myself, "wait a minute, did I write that?" I've never reacted that way to reading the printed version of stuff that I wrote for print in the first place.

More than once, the feeling has been so strong that I've checked, and yes, I did write that. Somehow all those little pieces of crystallized conversation morphed into a book. I feel like one of those people who becomes an author by telling stories to a ghostwriter.

[David Foster Wallace, a self-confessed "snoot", has taken some lumps in this blog. But he (or his editor at The Atlantic) had a good idea about how to render links (or footnotes) more readable in print. So as Ali G said to Sir Rhodes Boyson, "Respect, man. Respect."]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 20, 2006 07:18 AM