Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I began my first blog four years ago but aborted it after three weeks. I had some notion that my class — it was the first class I ever taught, actually — might start blogging about American history. I abandoned the idea in favour of an on-line discussion board to supplement classroom discussion, which we had depressingly little time for. My other reason for abandoning the blog was my impression that most blogs are not merely trivial but banal and badly written, and of no conceivable interest to anyone other than their authors, and I didn't want to jump on the latest digital bandwagon just because I could. I learned my lesson about tech-junk when I rushed out and bought a Commodore 128 in 1986.

A great deal has happened in the blogosphere since 2004, and it's no exaggeration to say that some of best journalism — and most useful muckraking — in the world today is being produced by bloggers. But the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of blogs are time wasters for readers, and time is the one resource we have less of with every passing second. And it feels good to say, once more, and with feeling: that information does not equal knowledge. I have absolutely no interest in the mundane musings of the typical blogging suburbanite — nor indeed those of otherwise decent journalists who blog because they're forced to — and this goes doubly for the legions of semiliterate bloggers whose only encounters with books seem to be in the form of Facebook. Add the huge numbers of blogs by the denizens of the lunatic fringe and I find little that can justify keeping me from Northanger Abbey for much longer.

I always suspected that blogging often serves as an outlet for some of the worst qualities of the exhibitionist mentality, but I never suspected that it could be a form of voyeurism, too. How wrong I was. When I wondered aloud one day how many people might actually read my blog, I was informed that it was possible to know - and in fact to know a great deal more than that. Programs such as Statcounter make it possible, in effect, for the writer to surveil the reader. By the simple expedient of cutting and pasting a line of code, bloggers can learn their readers' IP addresses, the time and length of their visits, the keyword searches they used to find the page, and — I don't exaggerate when I say that my heart skipped a beat upon this discovery — in some cases the name of the person to whom the connecting computer belongs.

So this gives me one further reason to like books and used books in particular. The moral and ethical implications of Internet monitoring are the subject of serious study in certain fields, but in the case of most bloggers I've talked to, their defense of the practice amounts to nothing more sophisticated than arguing that their curiosity is more important than my privacy, which seems both shady and seedy to me. I don't wish to sound naive: I know it's the same almost everywhere on the Internet, and I understand that gathering such data can be useful for commercial purposes, where ethics is usually a secondary consideration.

But I fail to see how surveiling the reader serves a useful purpose for serious writers - by which I mean people who write for themselves and for the sake of their craft and not to pander to a known constituency. Last night I finished Doris Lessing's extraordinary short story The Temptation of Jack Orkney and — this is the crucial point — Lessing had no idea. I hate to think of the story being different than it was, but I can't quite see past the fact that it might have been had Lessing been checking up on her potential readership on a daily basis while writing it.

I always tell my students that if they want to write, that if they feel that they must write, then they should never, never, never give it up, even if their work goes unpublished. I have a friend who keeps half-finished plays and short stories tucked away in drawers, where they await a better day, and this has always struck me as being immensely admirable. This blog is my digital drawer for tucking things away: whether or not it is being read is of no consequence to me. I write because I must, because I wouldn't be me if I didn't.

So, gentle reader, you can take your anonymity for granted. I know not who you are or from whence you came. But elsewhere you must contend with the rather frightening possibility that Big Blogger is watching you.

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