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The Guardian’s comment is free turned five last week. It’s a good site to bookmark if you haven’t come across it before; there is always something interesting or surprising. And even though the readers’ comments at the bottom can be a bit predictable, there is enough variety in the subject matter to keep it fresh.

But then the whole point of the site is to allow not just comment, but comment on the comment. So it was a delight to find this piece, by Joe Moran, on the topic of marginalia – the original form of the comment box.

I am almost neurotically law-abiding, but there is one area of life where I am an outlaw, beyond the pale, a fugitive from justice. I only do it in pencil, and sometimes I remember to rub it out, but … I write in library books. Those spaces down the sides of the page seem so inviting that the impulse to anoint them with scribbles is irresistible. History is on my side: until the 19th century books were often used as scrap paper, and few people had qualms about scrawling on a pristine copy. No jury in the land would convict me. Books are meant to be written on.

Is such annotation a dying art in our online era? Most ebook readers allow you to highlight text and take notes, but there isn’t the same aesthetic of columns of alluring white space. On the other hand the web has whetted our appetite for sharing reading experiences. Amazon has just introduced a facility for the Kindle which posts your marginalia online so others can read it. Social reading websites like BookGlutton, where you can attach notes for other readers of the same book, have been around for a while.

You could argue that this impulse is really a return to the great age of marginalia, which the literary scholar HJ Jackson identifies as lasting from about 1750 to 1820. The practice then was widespread and communal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the word “marginalia”, wrote his own marginal comments with an audience in mind – and even published some of them. “You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic,” he wrote, a little smugly, in one of Charles Lamb’s books. Many of today’s social networking sites similarly create a kind of ongoing collective commentary – not just on books, but on the world in general.

And yet there is something missing from this electronic marginalia. First, it seems so ephemeral. Pencil marks left on a page will last several lifetimes, perhaps as long as the paper itself. Public Notes, on Kindle, are less tangible and, even if someone is archiving them, are likely to be unreadable in future because of hardware or software changes. The most basic motive for writing marginalia is surely to create a sense of ownership: children often write their names over and over again in books. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Second, this public note-taking seems too much like performance. For the last two centuries, marginalia has been semi-private, almost furtive, a silent communion with the author or the unknown reader who might pick up the book, secondhand, a generation later. Marginalia is, by definition, something on the margins – undervalued, overlooked.

Do you write in your own books? Do you write in other people’s books? Is it the same putting notes on your Kindle?

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Britain Going Blog Crazy - Metro Article by Annie Mole.What makes a good blog? What makes a successful blog? What makes a worthwhile blog? I’ve no idea. (And – it’s worth noting – these are quite different questions.) I ask them because I am celebrating an anniversary today. Not ten years or even a year, but three months of happy blogging. This might seem a bit premature, but I said to myself when I began that I would keep going for six months come what may; so the halfway mark gives a small excuse to take stock.

Mostly, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m posting about three or four times a week, and the rhythm of writing has forced me to think about the topics at hand, and made me reflect more generally on what is happening around me and in the press. I’m more curious, and a bit braver about trying to express (or at least trying to form) my own opinion. Usually an idea grabs me or annoys me and I scribble it down for an upcoming post. Now and then I’m feeling a bit blank or too busy to think, and I feel the pressure to write (‘what if I fall silent?!’). Then something catches my attention, or I put it off for a day.

Other unexpected effects of starting to blog: I write quicker than three months ago; and once or twice a post has grown into an article that has been published – so the blogging has helped me risk stepping into a more public debate. Hopefully, some of the posts have got people thinking about something they might have missed, and reflecting a bit more deeply. This is the point! And that is what makes me feel as a priest that it is worth wasting a little bit of time on this.

The stats: I get about 100 page hits a day. WordPress doesn’t tell you how many unique visitors you get, and I don’t want to sign up to these statistics websites because with my love of detail I would get drawn into obsessing about the stats. Anyway, if there are a hundred page hits, and each person is clicking on each of the twenty-five posts displayed, then that means four people are reading the blog each day! (I know, it’s possibly slightly more than that…)

But I had one exceptional weekend, just ten days ago. For some reason my post about ‘best movies of the decade’ got picked up and put on the WordPress homepage (they choose a few every day) – this is like getting invited to the Oscars – and I had six thousand hits in three days. Suddenly I was ‘out there’ in this strange world of connections and clicking and commentators; and then, as quickly as the link was taken off the WordPress page, I was back in my office with my four friends… WordPress.com, by the way, has been a fantastic (and free) host.

my brief moment in the blogging stratosphere last weekend

I’m still not sure if the blog has any unity. Friends have called it ‘eclectic’ – I think they mean it is pretty random. This is my concern, that there is no focus or theme to the posts, so readers aren’t quite sure what they are coming to, or why they should come back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. Or perhaps there is a theme developing: Even with all the random posts about film or technology or faith or morality, I feel an underlying thread is the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I teach a number of courses in philosophy and theology, and most of the posts here would provide food for thought in the course called ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person.

So another three months lie ahead. To any regular readers: Now is the time for feedback. I’m not fishing for compliments, just genuinely wanting to know how you are finding the blog. What have you enjoyed most? What isn’t working? What would make it more interesting for you? Any concrete advice about the topics that could be considered, the frequency of posts, the length of posts, the use of images, etc. In a nutshell, what has your experience been?! (As they say…)

Do post any of your thoughts in the comments box below. And that is another matter itself – how do you encourage people to comment and interact more?

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