One way to measure the success of a blog is by how much spam its WordPress filters catch. Somehow, I think the bots that troll the blogosphere know which blogs get more traffic and target their “marketing” strategy at them. The blog that I keep at work, where keywords and headings are meticulously crafted to optimize hits from the search engines, is visited as often as Don Corleone on “this, the day of his daughter’s wedding” in comparison to this, my personal blog. Each day nets dozens of spam comments in my work blog’s filter. HistoryJournal.org, on the other hand, is lucky if the errant male-enhancement ad washes up on shore once or twice a week. I don’t care. Not search-engine-optimizing my
<h2> tags on HistoryJournal.org is my rebellion against marketing, my current profession.
(Yes, folks. This is the one day of the year, my blog’s anniversary – it was technically on March 8 – where I blog about blogging. Feel free to turn away. There is not so much a sign of a blog’s decay, writer’s block, or an author’s sickness of the writing craft as when he or she begins to write about what it feels like to be writing. Like a historian writing about what good history should be written like instead of showing you by writing good history himself. Nevertheless, the historiography demons need to be exorcised at least once a year, so I’ll try to keep it as short and sweet as possible.)
An opportunity presented itself to me a year ago after I wrote the post, “History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen”. I had been looking for a way to a way to write about history that would be fresh, interesting, and relevant to the living world. With that post, I hit upon a style or genre which I could develop upon in the future. I desperately wanted to avoid writing history in the dusty forms everyone is so used to, either ringing grandiose notes that always fall flat (“Since the dawn of man…” or, “Our world would not be the same if it were not for…”) or delving into minutiae that interests nobody but the collector of such informational tidbits (“On this day in history…”). The style that I have tried to work on this past year (in between peddling my marketing skills, chasing various pet hobbies, and staving off spirit-sapping ennui which has been waging war against me since 2007) has been to present history in an extremely personal narrative.
This is not the typical approach to history-writing. I wish I could write like Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club, my favorite contemporary work of history. In that book, there are no gimmicks, no anachronisms, no words out of place. Menand just crafts his stories well, truthfully, and with unaffected and genuine emotion.
But I also wish I could write words that have the immediacy of the songs by Lil’ Wayne or Jay-Z. I was listening the other day to FM 98.7, Chicago’s classical music station, and heard a disgusting thing. While I usually enjoy the grandfatherly banter and stringed sounds of the station, they were on their fundraising drive that day. The pitch is always about how important it is to preserve the classical music heritage, with which I agree. But the other day some lady on the station let slip something about “saving the tradition of civilized music”. What would “uncivilized” music be then? Hip hop is the usual target, and I conjecture the lady on the radio had this in mind. Listening to this while driving to work, I thought of something that I had seen when I had visited New York City several years ago.
I was riding on the subway train to the next show or tourist attraction in Manhattan. The car was mostly empty and I think that my sister and brother-in-law were there with me too. The wheels of the train ticked off a leaden rhythm, but otherwise it was quiet. We pulled up to a station, and, all of a sudden, a large group of black high school students rushed into our quiet car. There was great excitement among the group; it seemed like they were in the middle of some activity. It quickly became obvious what it was: there was a battle.
The group formed a circle right in front of us in the cramped car, and so many students had gotten on at once that the train-car was now almost full. He got in the center of the circle, the first rapper. His friends, pressing their bodies together towards the center, were beatboxing the rhythm. The girls of the group hung around the outside of the circle, smiling and admiring. He cut into the song, his flow following close behind what his eyes were taking in. He rapped about the subway, his friends, their attitude, the clothes they were wearing, his skills, the city: everything that was emitting the vapor of life in that very moment. His friends yelped, and harmonized, and cheered, and then the next rapper picked up the song as the first young bard submerged back into the crowd. The rap battle continued past several subway stations before the entire group got off the train just as suddenly as they had boarded.
I was stunned, amazed; I had never seen anything like this before and never have since (one must remember, of course, that I live in sleepy ol’ Buffalo Grove , Illinois). Now, I want to laugh out loud every time someone says something ignorant like that hip hop music is “uncivilized”. There before my eyes in New York City was one of the few examples I have ever seen in America of a living poetic culture. It reminded me of the braggadocio of Homeric warriors and heroes of other classic epics. Who else in America savors the twists and turns of the English language on a visceral level as much as this little community of high school students whirling through New York City, I thought to myself? I want to write history like that.
There are, of course, drawbacks and challenges to my little project. One hears the advice, “write what you know”, but writing history from the narrative of personal experience often smacks of self-indulgence. After all, how much do I actually talk about “history” in the classical sense of the term on HistoryJournal.org? This is a drawback, and my writing style has to continue to evolve.
Writing regular book reviews has been a real challenge, too. I wanted in some way to become part of the contemporary “conversation” in the history community, so I made it a personal goal to read a newly-released history book once a month and review it on the blog. That was at least six months ago, and I’ve only managed to eek out one mediocre book review that was really more of a summary. I’m going to continue reading newly-published history books as part of my regular historical explorations, but not with a mind to necessarily writing about them. WordPress’s PostAWeek Challenge is enough structure for me for now. I guess the words that I wrote a year ago still ring true with me:
Lately, I have let my imagination have free reign (such as when I go to a bookstore and browse “on autopilot”) and have found that, if allowed to roam freely, it takes me on a journey. The historical imagination thrives on good stories told well. In fact, it seeks to construct its own story by following the threads of others. This journey is what first made me fall in love with history when I was very young. Why, even now, write about anything else?
And yet this is the conviction, while passionately held, of someone drifting apart from any kind of scholarly or literary community. Living in the suburbs has been fueling an ennui that only until recently has overpowered even the desire to move somewhere else. In the routine of dull bachelor life, outside of any real community, one can toy with personal identity as one plays with a new gadget or entertains a pet project. It’s a good time to open one’s eyes to new perspectives and recognize extraordinary patterns that one would normally overlook in normal life.
But as Pete Blaber writes in The Mission, The Men, and Me, reality is not reality unless it’s shared. History is not written for the ether (or solely for the author, for that matter). History is about the past, but it’s also about the present and definitely for the present. And narrative is important because we are human beings, not computers; emotions, triggered by stories, are part of our machinery. And so maybe I’ll keep tramping across the landscape of history like the young rappers whirling through the New York City metro and singing their songs; tramping until I can market not
<h2> tags but the great stories of the past; tramping until hopefully I’ll find a band of fellow-travelers to tramp with and sing with before, as happens to every passenger, it’s time for me to get off the train.