I got used to it, but for a long time the term ‘blog’ grated on me. Back in the day, I was so excited about what writing on the web could be, and ‘blog’ just seemed too small to describe the task.
Ten years down the road and everyone calls them blogs, and we all know what a blog is, even though it can be any number of things. Some blogs are mostly links and some are mostly original writing. They’re the province of informed amateurs, high order cranks and the cool professional. Except in the broadest sense, (words on the web, usually one entry after the other in chronological order) there is no one shape for blogging.
But the more I consider it, the more I think there is an archetype for blogging, and it can be found in the tradition of the ‘commonplace.’ A commonplace was a book people of learning (or people who aspired to learn) kept. Think of a commonplace book as a notebook, in which you transcribed passages from writing that caught your eye. It was “assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations,” as Steven Johnson describes the commonplace in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From.
Johnson, quoting a historian named Robert Darnton:
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early moden Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts.
Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
A book of your own. That, I think, is the condition blogs aspire to, a set of annotations and commentary, excerpts and opinions which taken together reveal something greater. Pattern recognition, leads to run down, blind alleys to note, walking up to the edge of knowing something new. That’s why blogs exist, as far as any one of them may seem from that exalted state.