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April 14, 2009

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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.

Posted April 14, 2009 at 12:41 | Comments (12) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Media Galaxy, New Liberal Arts


WONDERFUL word. I'm sold.

Another great contributor: Bibliodyssey.

I've got more!

Obviously there's the spectacular Rachel Leow.
But also Al Filreis's 1960 blog; Mercurius Politicus; Milestone Documents.

There's even paleocartooning! I love Hark! A Vagrant. And to a certain extent, you could also say Maira Kalman's And the Pursuit of Happiness.

Maybe less obvious but still relevant here are Mark Wood of wood_s_lot and Ken Knabb at The Bureau of Public Secrets.

Posted by: Carl Caputo on April 14, 2009 at 04:53 PM

Similar to (but I would say > than) Bureau of Public Secrets is Kenny Goldsmith's UbuWeb. It's a mix of old and new stuff, but still an amazing resource. If not quite a blog.

In this context I always particularly enjoy Goldsmith's "If It Doesn't Exist On The Internet, It Doesn't Exist." I'll even give away the joke. At the end of a full-throated exhortation to scholars and artists to put their stuff on the internet, unimpeded, for free, Goldsmith does an about-face and whispers:

Shhhh... the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It's the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don't want it to exist -- and there are many reasons to want to keep things private -- keep it off the web.

I say, more new things on paper. More old things on the web!

I love this post and will have to check out some of those recommendations.

I was staying up in an old cabin in VT this winter and the old bookshelves had some gems including a guide to/history of New York City written in the early 20th century that had my eyes bugging out it was so rich with material.

(Re-reading that sentence is making me cringe, but I'll continue.)

I considered "borrowing it" to take it home and mine through it, but I felt bad. Now I think I ought to do so for the greater good. Next season!

Perfectly good sentence, Katiebakes! Okay, maybe you're missing three commas. I'll just punctuate it for you:

I was staying up in an old cabin in VT this winter, and the old bookshelves had some gems, including a guide to/history of New York City written in the early 20th century that had my eyes bugging out, it was so rich with material.

Not bad at all.

PS: Idea for a blog. "Sentence Therapy." Like Metafilter for sentences. You post a sentence that's genuinely tricky, or particularly important to you, and the crowd reads it and spits back grammatically correct/rhetorically exciting versions of your sentence. You get a trust/rankings systems going, where you can build trust-capital as a grammarian and wordsmith.

Okay, maybe "the crowd" is just me, because no one else would do this. But so long as the sentences were judiciously chosen, I could do this all day.

Tim! Jeez! You're a font of entirely register-worthy domains today. I hope you own and

How would you get people to, I wonder? You'd almost want to strike up co-promotional deals w/ the big online dictionary & grammar sites... so people looking for little bits of help would see that there's a resource for higher-order assistance, too...

"Rhetorically exciting." Seriously, I love this. Maybe I'M going to register

DOOO it. (Because, um, I don't know how.)

Hey, I was thinking that the site is now enabling Paleophotoblogging, which is wonderful. What a great website.

(Thanks for the grammatical help. I either go way overboard with commas typically OR I shun them altogether. There's really no middle ground.)

"Typically, I either go way overboard with commas or shun them altogether." See how useful this could be? ;-)

Yeah, has stepped up their game. Are you familiar with Vik Muniz's Best of Life series? I think he's my favorite contemporary artist.

I like this term. One of my favorite paleobloggers is "Found in Mom's Basement."

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