Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Age of the Essay is Dawning
   The power to publish is now universal

“History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.” Of such observations, Paul Graham weaves an essay about how to write essays. He uses history to explain how the teaching of writing became entangled in the English departments in universities and high schools, and he doesn’t believe this has been a good development for students. Writing in school is too much about literature and too little about life experience (though not in the Heritage Project, of course).

But good things may be on the horizon. The age of short stories occurred between the rise of literacy and the coming of television, and it may well be that the age of the essay is dawning now, as the internet allows anyone to publish their thoughts on any topic.

I hope this is true. I rather like the idea that after centuries of working to be sure that nearly everyone can read, we may now be poised to take a giant step toward a world in which everyone can write as well. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone will aspire to being a New York Times bestselling author. We have enough of those. What we don’t have nearly enough of is local writers who talk about local matters. How local? I would say we need more writers, many more writers, who write for their families.

As cameras became easier and cheaper to use, a marvellous new thing came into the world: the family photo album. Most of the world’s millions of photographers are happy to practice their craft for their families alone. This is a very good thing. Today it is quite simple for family members to contribute to a group web site that combines photos and videos with emails from members who are far away. In the interesting way that current news becomes treasured history if it is simply saved, such sites are destined to become some people’s most important possession.  Such sites will teach us, I believe, to appreciate more keenly that all good and important writing does not concern itself with national events or politics. And unlike a photo album, such a web site is safe when the house catches fire.

But we are not just family members. We are also citizens of towns and neighborhoods, as well as amateur gardeners and geologists and volunteer firemen. All these groups would benefit from having their own writers. A gardening club with a group blog could create an informational resource of great value to gardeners from that area, especially young people just trying to figure it out. It could be a resource that would grow more valuable with time, enriching the pleasure gardeners already find in their hobby, by providing a way for them discuss their efforts and document their triumphs, sharing their work with others with similar passions. I wish such a blog existed where I live.

We do not develop and publish nearly enough local knowledge about such topics as gardening. What works in Missoula doesn’t necessary work in Great Falls. We also doen’t develop and publish nearly enough local knowledge about trout populations, building construction, business strategies, ethnic traditions, and cooking.

I would like to live in a place where local scientists studied local ponds and meadows, posting their findings on a local website. A place where local cooks experimented with local produce, sharing their recipes and ideas, developing an original cuisine rooted there. A place where local historians published the histories of local institutions, such as the volunteer ambulance service and the womens club, as well as the histories of roads and buildings, including barns. I would like to live in a place where people documented their favorite mountain hikes, the birds that reliably arrive in their trees, and any number of other topics that I would never have thought to wonder about, but would be surprised and delighted to find on a local website. And I would like to live in a place where I could find at least rudimentary information about every person who had ever lived there.

The easy storage and the growing power of search engines allow individuals or small groups to create repositories of knowledge, experience, and insight that could transform human life in ways we are only beginning to understand. Cheap, fast travel and saturation mass media have tended to homogenize culture in recent decades, but this may be only a phase in history. What lies ahead may be a renaissance of local culture, driven by new informational media. Local groups now have the tools they need to develop local culture to a high state by the simple expedient of sharing with like-minded others their ideas, their experiences, their occasional bits of insight, and their inspiration.

If enough people are drawn to writing and publishing essays, it’s easy to imagine that someday many people will live in such places. If so, it would constitute a true renaissance of local culture.  Such a renaissance would not replace the works of superior scholarship published by brilliant professors, nor need witty national pundits fear unemployment. High school teams and pickup basketball games do not, after all, threaten professional sports. Indeed, they cultivate the most avid of all audiences for the “big” guys.

I would be more skeptical about all this were it not for the several million bloggers who have already sprung into action. Something is happening. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/28 at 09:54 PM
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© 2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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