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Pickle Me This

On Literary Blogs

(On December 9 2008, I delivered this address as a panelist for the Arts Matters Forum “A Passion For Reading”,  hosted by Their Excellencies, Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Jean-Daniel Lafond in Ottawa, Ontario).

It is a myth that reading is a solitary activity. A myth perpetuated, perhaps, by the fact that reading tends to be quiet. But the act of reading is first a silent transaction between two people— the writer and the reader. A transaction not complete until the reader has imagined the writer’s words back into an idea.

But of course the transaction doesn’t end with two. The communal creatures we are, we go to extravagant lengths to extend that partnership— all of us gathered here now is a perfect example. And book clubs are another, as are the communities that spring up from independent bookstores, or people who write fan fiction, audiences that gather for author readings and signings, and those of us who always pick up the Book Reviews from the newspaper first thing.

But public displays of readers are even more common than you’d think— take public transport, for instance. In these difficult days for the books business— with sales down, readers in decline, apparently— I am heartened each time I get on a train or a bus to see a crowd of strangers spontaneously assembled, and so many of them reading.

I don’t care what they’re reading— particularly if they’re young, because as a child all I read were Archie comics. I don’t care if they’re reading a newspaper off the floor, a teen vampire novel, or a comprehensive history of codfish. These strangers reading alone together are the most encouraging sign for our civilization that I encounter every day.

Similar to a bus then is the internet, in that it takes all sorts, and you’re required to step over garbage. Busses are similar to the internet too because of the readers reading side-by-side, except that once in a while, on the internet, they actually put the book down and reach out for contact.

Now most normal people don’t follow the internet phenomenon that is the literary blog. Most normal people aren’t so interested in literary gossip and bookish feuds and scandals, swapping reviews, and celebrating the best books published yesterday, or years ago. They might think it strange that other people spend this much time thinking about books, writing about books, and doing it all for fun.

When I started blogging about books, it was out of a desire to be better engaged with my reading. But why a blog? Why didn’t I just content myself with a notebook and a pen? Of course, I was looking for community too. Other books blog had inspired me, and I liked that somebody might notice what I had to say.

Eventually, after I’d started writing shortish, informal book reviews, not professing to any authority beyond that of the common reader, publishers began paying attention. Bloggers have become essential marketing tools in recent years, so they started offering to send me books. And while I was initially wary of becoming an essential marketing tool, I’ve maintained my autonomy— I don’t read books I don’t want to read, and I only review the ones I care about enough to do so. I still make a point of buying a lot of books too, and I like that I can do my part in promoting the ones I like best.

I soon found, however, that the more I was thinking about books and writing about books, the more I had to say. Responding to literary current events, exploring bizarre connections between books I just happened to be reading, my own bookish ramblings— about cataloguing, marginalia, rereadings, about the two dollar bill I found inside The Robber Bride. I’ve started doing author interviews, which can be like having a direct line to God. And I still write reviews, of course— the pile of books at my bedside lives on the verge of toppling over.

And this blog, the one I’d started in order to better engage with my reading? Well, it turned out other people found it interesting too. I track the statistics of who reads my blog, and though there are diehards— book blog enthusiasts like myself who check in every day, who have blogs of their own— much of my readership is more casual.

Which is more proof that a book’s experience lingers past its final page, and of how readers reach out to one another to share it: many readers show up at my blog every day with a query about a particular book or author. Perhaps they’re looking for a recommendation, or they’ve already read the book and have questions. Readers come seeking enlightenment in the form of a second opinion. Some arrive perplexed— Googling the name of a book, and “What does the end mean?” Or I get high school students searching for essay ideas, book clubs referring to online reviews to inspire discussion questions. People leave comments disagreeing with my assessments, or adding input of their own. A book read sends a current into the world, and the internet aids us readers in continuing it on and on.

And that simple transaction I first mentioned, the one between reader and writer? Here, that relationship comes full circle. It turns out that authors are desperate to find out what readers make of their books in the world, if the books are being read at all. I’m sure most authors won’t admit to spending Friday nights at home Googling themselves, but a lot of them do it, and I’ve got the webstats as proof.

I was recently amazed to find that in 1925, somehow Virginia Woolf had predicted all of this about books blogs. In her essay “How Should One Read A Book?” about readers, of their “responsibilities” and “importance”, she writes, “The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work.”

The internet, books blogs in particular, have literalized Woolf’s metaphor. Her community of readers sending judgement into the air is actual, however virtual.

But we should take special note of the “responsibilities” Woolf refers to. Certainly, if our judgements are to be made part of the atmosphere, we have to ensure that these are thoughtful and considered, that we have read wisely and carefully, maintaining open minds.

Because I know many people remain horrified and terrified by the rise of the so-called “cult of the amateur”. To them, book reviewing appears in decline, being replaced by a horde of common readers. And though I see literary criticism as an art form whose quality indeed outstrips that of books blogs like my own, I also see that books blogs and literary criticism are two very different things.
Which Woolf recognized as well. In her essay, she didn’t regard these readers as critics, or even pseudo-critics. They are something different, but still essential for cultivating a passion for reading in the world, and even encouraging a better calibre of book.

These readers, Woolf writes, are creating “another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and yet unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity.”

She continues, “And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.” And I, of course, think she’s right, and that we’re getting there.