Monday, June 21, 2010

Why books are better than blogs: A guest post by Charles Wohlforth

The media is the message in new media even more than old. How we read helps define how we think. If what you read is short and superficial, you’re not likely to have deep thoughts as a result. Blogs are not only that, but they are heavy on irony, outrage or dogmatism, which are not deeply enlightening forms of expression.

In my book The Fate of Nature, I wrote this about being outdoors in Prince William Sound:

Anchored in a tiny cove on an island in the southwest Sound, we paddled ashore in miniature plastic kayaks to pick blueberries. The drowsy green woods were fully enclosed from the sky except for big drops of gathered rainwater that clattered down from the long, sagging bows. The silence of deep moss rendered hypnotic the repetitive process of grasping one bright blue orb and then another and the gradual increase of the blueness in a plastic bag—the only contrast from universal green. The Sound erases the rest of the world in a few days. Being is different here. Time smoothes, pulsing slowly with the tide, losing the quantized, mechanical tick it has in the city. Decisions in the Sound are creations, not selections from a menu of choices. Cognition, or thought, is different here, too. It’s continuous, not suited to boxes. Whole ideas grow up, long thoughts leading to unexpected destinations—unlike the flitting of city thinking, which is mostly reactions to questions, messages, lines and squares. From this perspective, that city life, if remembered at all, looks like a mechanical complex of herky-jerky activity, as incoherent as a hazily remembered dream. Both mental frames are real—urban or outdoor—but the continuity that arises in this environment makes it is easier to feel connected to other living things.

That one paragraph is way too long for a blog post! (Oops, there’s a little new media irony.) But it gets to my point: there’s much more to saving nature than our practices as consumers and disposers. It matters how we think. We won’t transform the world if we’re flitting from one idea to the next.

I’ve been struggling to figure out how I can write meaningfully online when my topic is one that takes a lot of thought, a slower mode of thought, and some commitment from readers. And to do it when I don’t really have time for a lot of uncompensated writing.

In the exchange of meaning between writer and reader there is no substitute for effort–if readers don’t want to dig in and understand what I have to say, they just won’t get it. Likewise, most good writing is hard work, and blog posts dashed off the top of the head are no more valuable than casual comments made the same way. Laziness has a cost. I’m hoping online writing evolves beyond it.

4 comments:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I loved that passage you excerpted, Charles. You captured the setting and moment wonderfully.

And I agree that deep reading (including reading of books we don't grasp on every level right away -- I'm struggling with a Faulkner novel this very afternoon!) is a completely different experience from surfing the internet and partaking in our distracted, fractured electronic life. ON THE OTHER HAND, blogs (like this), radio chatter, and all the rest can help point us to the books and people, including fellow readers and writers, who help us slow down. That's my optimistic viewpoint, but no surprise, given my commitment to blogging!

Pauline said...

I totally agree with you, Andromeda. I think we're selling ourselves short if we don't gather information where ever it's available and then follow up with our own research.

Yes, there are plenty of blogs that are nothing but ranting. Personally, though, I do a lot of research for my daily blog posts (with books no less!) as do many of my fellow history bloggers.

I firmly believe it is alway dangerous to generalize. Maybe you're just not reading the "write" blogs, Charles.

Helen Hegener said...

I used to fret about the somewhat fleeting quality of blogs, and I worried that they wasted time that could be better spent working on books. But over the years I've come to see them as a proving ground for my writing: I'll post something, my kind (and sometimes not-so-kind) readers will comment or add information, and that often gives me valuable fodder to strengthen my point.

Speaking of points, here's one case in point: My just-published book on the All Alaska Sweepstakes took shape in the form of a blog we kept when we were reporting on the race in 2008. The posts I'd written and the photos we ran during the race, along with comments from our readers, were incredibly helpful in writing the book, giving me context and details that would have been difficult to track by any other method.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

What a beautiful paragraph, Charles, and you captured the Sound perfectly. And yes, it would look odd in a blog post. We need to think of blogging as a separate genre or kind of writing, suited for some things but not others.