Jeff Wasserstrom: Should historians ignore blogs?





[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at University of California at Irvine, who blogs regularly for The China Beat (http://thechinabeat.blogspot.com/) and the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/), and has published in various academic journals and general interest periodicals, ranging from the TLS to Newsweek. ]

To some readers of this newsmagazine, the word “blog”—a term derived from “web log” that’s now used to refer to all sorts of sites—probably conjures up images of narcissistic, self-confessional writers who love to go on and on about their pet peeves. So, let me begin with some personal details, a confession, and a pet peeve. The details: I teach about China and contribute regularly to a group blog. The confession: up to about a year-and-a-half ago, I had never blogged and didn’t read blogs much. The pet peeve (that won’t come as news to anyone who read my “Eurocentrism and Its Discontents” piece in Perspectives back in January 2001): essays that focus on global phenomena, such as blogging, and make generalizations that apply to the United States and Western Europe but not necessarily the rest of world. (What follows, in fact, began as a letter of complaint triggered by an otherwise very admirable New York Review of Books essay on blogs that had precisely that flaw.) So, when reading what follows, keep these things in mind: (1). You’ll hear a lot about China—not a bad thing, really, if you’re curious about the web, as that country now has more internet users than any other. (2). The category of “uninitiated historian” in the title included me until mid-2007. (3). Many of the mistaken notions I want to debunk are things I believed myself until recently—though 18 months in the blogosphere (where time passes so fast that it is better reckoned in dog years than in human ones) isn’t actually such a short period.

Misconception 1: All bloggers prattle on about themselves, make confessions, and rant about pet peeves. Some bloggers do, but not all. Take, for example, the team responsible for China Digital Times (tag line: “The revolution will be blogged”). This great site (http://chinadigitaltimes.com/) is devoted to updating readers on Chinese politics. You won’t learn much about the bloggers from the posts they write for it, which summarize press reports, translate pieces by bloggers based in the PRC, and so on. (You can tell that they’re bugged by the fact that China isn’t a more open society, but isn’t that too big an issue to count as a “pet peeve”?)...

Misconception 5: Books and blogs are so different that the publication of Boxer’s anthology was a “man bites dog” novelty. This is how Boxer approached Ultimate Blogs in her NYRB essay, explaining how she’d come around to the idea of creating the anthology, despite viewing it at first as a “dreadful” prospect. Thomas Jones, writing about Boxer in the January 24 issue of the London Review of Books, begins: “Books and blogs, if they’re doing their jobs properly, are as different as two kinds of published text can be.” He goes on to dub Ultimate Blogs “an early contender for most pointless book of the year.” All I want to note is that Chinese readers would find this framing of the issue a bit odd. They know well that writing books and writing blogs can be very different endeavors, but they’ve grown used to bloggers bringing their posts together between hard covers. In the West, there have been enough books based on blogs for a special term to have been coined for them (“blooks”—albeit a term that hasn’t exactly caught on) and a prize to be offered for the best ones (called, perhaps inevitably, the “Blooker Prize”). Some have even sold well, with Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously a notable case in point. They do remain in the English language world, however, a fairly minor, fringe genre. But more and more are appearing, with 2009 titles including China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, a China Beat-based anthology that also contains materials reprinted from other publications and brand new essays, co-edited by Kate Merkel-Hess, Kenneth Pomeranz, and myself (with assistance from Miri Kim), and with a foreword by former AHA President Jonathan Spence; and (late in the year from Profile Books) It’s a Don’s Life, a between-hard-covers version of classicist Mary Beard’s blog. There’s nothing marginal, though, about the genre in China. As far back as April of 2006 (about 21 years ago, if we reckon time in the blogosphere the way I’ve suggested), according to a posting on the wonderful Danwei.org web site (a must for anyone who tracks trends in Chinese culture and media), not just one but two spots on China’s general non-fiction bestseller list were made up of books by bloggers. One was the “print version of Pan Shiyi’s blog,” another “Xu Jinglie’s collection of blog posts.”...




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