Scholar and Blogger

24/07/2010 16:52



Morning, nowadays, means coffee and the Times, as it did for my parents. But it also means something they never experienced: a trip across the Web. Slipping from link to link, occasionally falling in and spending a few minutes in one place, I pass from TNR to NYRB to Bookforum, from Atrios to Steve Benen, from Easily Distracted to University Diaries to Tenured Radical to TigerHawk, from Historiann and Arts & Letters Daily to Cliopatria and Athens & Jerusalem, from Andrew Sullivan to Megan McArdle to Ta-Nehisi Coates—and, for perspective, to the obituaries in the Telegraph.

Two very different pots of gold wait at the end of the rainbow. The main posts in these blogs, for all their differences, are sharp and often full of information, and they swarm with links to further blogs and reviews. At many sites, moreover, communities of commentators have taken shape. Scroll down from a post into the comment thread, and you find yourself in a virtual counterpart to Alcove No. 1 in the City College lunchroom, as it was many years ago—a place that buzzes with everything from critical intellects at play to bug-eyed ideologues who pout and shout. Running conversations, polyphonic and sometimes polymathic, enlarge on or contend with the main post. In the academic blogs that I like best, these illuminate the strange world in which I work.

For years now, one of my favorite pit stops on the long morning’s journey into consciousness has been A Don’s Life, the blog of the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard. One reason for that is Beard herself. A master historian of Rome, she has written learned and powerful books on the ways in which we moderns try to understand ancient sites and societies. She also produces, with formidable speed, sharp and provocative reviews and essays, in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and the TLS, the last of which she helps to edit. Her blog, like most others, offers everything from tiny but telling observations on the ironies of daily life to eloquent polemics against political and cultural follies. Like all first thoughts, these are not as considered as the arguments of Beard’s books, and sometimes it is understandable when they provoke furious reactions. But they are the first thoughts of a first-rate mind, cast in prose that gives pleasure, and they shift as easily and naturally from the present to antiquity as in the other direction. A discussion of toilets—and the lack of women’s rooms in Cambridge colleges—leads to Ally McBeal and her law firm’s unisex bathroom—which in turn leads to the Roman “multi-seaters” found in baths and other public places.