26 June 2012
Last week, Felix Salmon published an essay about the Jonah Lehrer kerfuffle — which I haven’t followed. This gist of it seems to be that Jonah is “guilty” of (self-) plagiarism, by virtue of repeating himself at The Frontal Cortex. Felix’s suggestion is to treat the blog, whether as author or as reader, as a notebook. It ought to record the blogger’s thoughts on his reading; it ought to link to online material wherever possible, and it ought to engage with comments and blog entries elsewhere that its entries have inspired.
Wonderful advice, and, oh! how I’m going to try to follow it. But I already know how difficult it is. How difficult, that is, to override the impulse to compose — to think of — entries as essays, or, at a minimum, as carefully-written letters to attentive correspondents. I’d like nothing better than to pile up my daily observations on this and that, but the effort of making them coherent to myself a week later would paralyze me with unrealistic obligations.
As to linking and following comments, this is far from convenient, even at this stage of the blogging project. Perhaps it is difficult for me, because of my age and the self-conscious nature of my endeavors here. (Not that they feel self-conscious to me.) I can imagine a number of technological advances that are unaccountably not being made, but then it’s very likely that I’m a market of one. I was thinking, over the weekend, how handy it would be to dictate into my smartphone throughout the day. When I sat down to prepare an entry, the words would meet me on the screen, already laid out more or less comprehensibly, and a little light editing would finish them for blogging purposes. (A podcast might also be generated as a byproduct, again automatically.) This would spare my writing energy, the time that I spend composing sentences and paragraphs and, yes, essays for the Web site writing that I never seem to get round to. It is maddening that this facility is not to hand.
Nevertheless, I shall renew the effort.
One problem that I have never solved is the matter of when a daily entry ought to be written. At the moment, I am writing entries the day before publication, so that I can begin the day without any distracting urgency. It also allows me to add to the entry as the day goes on, before anyone has seen the whole; it is only at the weekends that I’m willing to ask readers to look at an entry a second or third time, to see if I’ve added anything (how conceited this sounds!). What I do on the weekends is an uneasy, but to date the most agreeable, compromise between my desire to present fresh material every day and my need to have a life, especially on weekends.
I seem to be reading a dozen books all at once. Out of the blue, madly seeking a slim volume that I might carry along to babysitting the other night, I grabbed the latest edition of E H Carr’s very important 1961 lectures, What Is History? I’ve had the book for a few years now, on the recommendation of I forget whom; I feel awfully stupid for not having read it sooner. In the first two lectures, Carr deals with the problem of “historical facts” — what are they? — and sensibly concludes that they are facts that have become interesting to historians.
The layman imagines, as indeed the early nineteenth-historians believed, that the historian unearths facts from archives, more or less as a matter of looking things up, but anyone with a real interest in the subject knows that this is barely the beginning. One of the most curious books in my library is Eleanor Shipley Duckett’s Death and Life in the Tenth Century (Ann Arbor; 1967, 1988), a very readable account of the pivotal century in European history. Readable, yes; reliable, no. Duckett simply copies out monastic annals, and takes every document at face value. As a convenient account of the surviving writings of the time, Death and Life is probably invaluable, but it is not what we mean by history. I should venture that the number of historical facts pertaining to Europe in the Tenth Century is frightfully small.
As an example of the larval historical fact, Carr mentions the demise in 1850 of a ginger-bread vendor, kicked to death by a mob, at a place called Stalybridge. This event has, Carr notes, been picked up and examined by a colleague, Kitson Clark. Whether or not it becomes a historical fact is entirely a matter of other historians’ agreeing with Clark that it is noteworthy. (On the strength of the Wikipedia entry for Stalybridge — later swallowed up by Manchester — it appears not to have done so, for what that’s worth.)
The second lecture, “Society and the Individual,” thrashes out conundrums that are still being thrashed out today — one wonders what is keeping them alive. Like “nature” versus “nurture,” the distinction between society and the individual is profoundly bogus; there are no individuals acting apart from and outside society, and there are no inchoate “vast, impersonal forces” driving society. Anonymous, perhaps, but not impersonal. Is it difficult for many people to bear these fatally simple-sounding dichotomies in the reciprocity that makes sense of them?
Carr is a very good writer, and must have been an entertaining speaker. The odd thing about his little book is that we still need it.
In the late afternoon, three boxes of books arrived, almost all of them from across the sea. Many were purchased at the instigation of Diana Athill, so let’s blame her. How else would I have heard of Timothy Mo, whose An Insular Possession promises to be a good read about Hong Kong. Gitta Sereny I mentioned yesterday; today she appeared. Also, Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, which I mean to read in light of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction. Kathleen had asked for some one-volume histories of England, and I seem to have covered the range; last week, the Oxford History of Britain, edited by Kenneth Morgan, arrived in its imposing thickness (the British do thick paperbacks so much better than we do), while, today, Simon Jenkins’s very pretty (and pretty insubstantial A Short History of England came in. You might think that I’d have had a good history of England on the shelves, but I was much too cool for that; I required volumes on reigns and epochs. The Oxford is a collection of ten chapters, each written by a different historian, running from 55 BC to the present. Until a few minutes ago, I was lost in Paul Langford’s discussion of Walpole.
Also, and this from Alibris, Robert Liddell’s The Last Enchantments.