April 14, 2009
Two weeks ago I praised Harper’s Scott Horton, who in addition to tiptop legal/political commentary regularly serves up poignant and relevant chunks of older texts, and lamented that more bloggers don’t mine the past as well or as often as they do the just-this-minute.
I donít have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new… You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important… Get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it ó bring it into this world. Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.
There are actually a whole microclass of bloggers and online commentators who do what Horton does. And I think I’ve come up with a good name for what they do: paleoblogging.
Like paleontologists, paleobiologists, and paleoarcheologists, Paleobloggers dig up blogworthy material from the past to see what makes it tick. But instead of our prehistorical past, paleoblogging focuses on our analog past, blending in somewhere in the mid-1960s. See after the jump for my abbreviated field guide to paleoblogging.
Sometimes the impulse guiding paleoblogs is ironic: a piece of kitsch, a retrofuturist advertisement. (Note that there is both a Retrofuture blog and a Paleo-Future blog — I slightly prefer the Paleo.)
Other times, it’s curatorial. Boing Boing traffics in a lot of this stuff, as do Snarkmarket faves Kottke and Kevin Kelly. The cri de coeur of this kind of paleoblogging is probably Bruce Sterling’s manifesto for the Dead Media Project:
Plenty of wild wired promises are already being made for all the infant media. What we need is a somber, thoughtful, thorough, hype-free, even lugubrious book that honors the dead and resuscitates the spiritual ancestors of today’s mediated frenzy. A book to give its readership a deeper, paleontological perspective right in the dizzy midst of the digital revolution. We need a book about the failures of media, the collapses of media, the supercessions of media, the strangulations of media, a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn’t make it, martyred media, dead media. THE HANDBOOK OF DEAD MEDIA. A naturalist’s field guide for the communications paleontologist.
Once you push past the twentieth century, though, most of the writers skew scholarly. My two favorite academic paleobloggers are probably Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor and Sarah Werner at Wynken de Worde. Burstein is a Victorianist who works on popular religious fiction from the nineteenth century. This means that she reads a lot of books that LOTS and lots and whoa, lots of people read a hundred and fifty years ago but that nobody, hardly anybody, make that nobody reads today. And the blog is awesome.
Likewise, Sarah Werner works at the Folger institute - her blog is mainly about early modern culture and the history of the book. A typical post looks at early modern writing handbooks — books that help us “learn to be wise,” through a combination of mechanical and moral instruction:
Comenius’s impact on children’s education and book history is huge. His method for engaging children through pictures and narratives about the world around us not only made his book tremendously popular, it has shaped nearly all such books since. His method is wholly familiar to us today—it’s how we routinely teach our kids to read. In fact, what Orbis pictus reminds me most strongly of is Richard Scarry’s stories about Busytown. And let me tell you, as someone whose children love my old copies of Richard Scarry, wow is that a book that appeals to little kids!
And the blog is awesome!
The important thing to me about paleoblogging, as opposed to blogging about what’s in the New York Times or in your friends’ twitter feeds, is that this is stuff that would not enter into the conversation otherwise. You’re not just copying it from internet relay to internet relay, but genuinely scanning it, converting it from the physical and/or nonblogospheric universe into this universe of discourse, recirculating it into new channels of information and ultimately into new retinal images and neural paths. This is the fundamental humanist endeavour - taking knowledge that took a tremendous amount of energy and expenditure to achieve, and that would otherwise go UNknown, and giving it a new social life, a new audience.
One last note. I mentioned earlier that if the patron saint of coolhunting presentist bloggers is Malcolm Gladwell, then the patron saint of paleobloggers is Sarah Vowell. I’ve been reading Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, which is as good a book about the pilgrim/puritan settlers of New England as you will read this year. Funny, heartfelt, learned. Well worth checking out.