Feb 20, 2009, 06:16AM

The Roots of Blogging

Literary masters' journals are being reprinted as blog updates, which is perhaps the best way to read them.

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Being an obsessive reader can be a real pain: eye strain, for one thing, but also that reading list I can always sense hanging over my head, growing longer year by year. I tend to become briefly obsessed with the idea of reading a certain book, only to get discouraged when I can’t get through it before the next one catches my eye. Such was the case with The Diaries of Samuel Pepys. Written in the 1660s by a gossipy, endlessly curious government official, they are probably the most perceptive and wide-ranging record of life in Restoration London. In his diaries we have the mundanities of his job and marriage, but also reviews of the first Shakespeare productions in nearly 20 years (the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642) and his account of traveling with Charles II back to England to be crowned. It’s one of the classics of British literature, but it’s also about 10 volumes long—even the abridged Penguin version is over 1000 pages.

I had given up hope of ever getting through Pepys’ diaries when, strangely enough, I found his blog. On January 1, 2003 the website posted Pepys’ first entry from January 1, 1660, and has posted the corresponding entry for every day since (today we’re on Tuesday, February 20, 1666). It’s a simple but brilliant idea—rather than face down a discouraging brick of a book, I read an entry a day on my RSS reader alongside Politico and Ars Technica. Now, the chatty diaries are available in a correspondingly approachable format. But Pepys isn’t the only long-dead literary figure who’s blogging: you can also read George Orwell’s diary, with entries posted 70 years to the day after he wrote them. Unlike Pepys’, Orwell’s diary is not widely available in print. Besides, it’s gratifying to realize the great man’s life was frequently as mundane as my own. Sometimes more so: there’s a week when he recorded only the number of eggs his hens had laid (1/11/1939: “One egg.” 1/12/1939: “Three eggs.”). While these entries are less than riveting, his keen attention to detail in his diary shows the private side of the acute mind behind his novels and essays.

The Internet has a fantastic potential to literally re-present cultural works and figures in a more approachable way. These new presentations range from enlightening—one blog exclusively focuses on prominent figures’ daily routines (Churchill didn’t get out of bed until 11, and only then to have a cocktail)—to silly. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been re-imagined as a series of Facebook updates, and Orwell also has a Twitter feed with a, um, contrasting design scheme. But seriously, I would love to see Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle journals redone as a blog, or writers’ correspondence formatted like Gmail. Originally serialized novels by Dickens could be serialized again online, with the month-long wait between installments recreating the suspense Victorian readers felt. Bleak House would make one hell of a series of Facebook updates—a whole social network unto itself.

Blogs like Pepys’ and Orwell’s are great evidence against socially conservative suspicions about the Internet’s dire implications for culture. They look very different, but the content is available, for free, to more people than ever before. It’s seriously nerdy, but I can wait to read Pepys’ blog in September: the Great Fire of 1666 is coming, and there’s no better firsthand account.

  • Congratulations to Matt Poland for providing a unique take on what's available on the Internet. I'd love to read a "blog" about the French Revolution or the election of 1860. Well done, Mr. Poland!

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  • Oh, this is really great!

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  • a blog is really just a dynamic, update-able website that got a bad rap because too many 13-year-olds discovered them first. but now the world has figured out cool things like this to do with them. blog-haters, give it up. nice article!

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