My Back Pages

Tags: Scratch one puppy! Also, my top secret very first blog revealed.

I read a blog post the other day called something like, “Twenty Commandments for Getting and Keeping Readers at Your Blog”–a title that may remind you of Clemenceau’s response to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “God only needed ten.” I’ve misplaced the link (breaking one of the blogging commandments right there), but if you’ve read similar posts, you’ve probably heard most of the advice. What jumped out at me was this: Old is the New New breaks each and every one of the blogging commandments. Thou shalt choose one topic and stick to it? A commandment I honor more in the breach than in the observance. Thou shalt comment widely on other blogs? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Thou shalt keep your posts short and to the point? Thou shalt post regularly? Thou shalt have an informative “About” page? A distinctive banner? Bless me Blogfather, for I have sinned.*

I’m going to work on some of those commandments in future and blithely ignore others. But in the meantime, by all blogging logic (or as the kids call it, “blogic!”), I should have no readers whatsoever. Which means if you are actually reading this, you are obviously a person of rare discernment and intellectual fortitude. Excelsior! Or, you are just Googling for that picture of Gloria Swanson to use as a MySpace icon.

I’m thinking about blogging do’s and don’ts (sorry, puppy!) because a few more grad students in our department set up weblogs over the summer. Ryan O’Connor’s Great Green North intends to explore the history of the environmental movement in Canada, while Rollen Lee’s Disserzine chronicles his gruelling task of reading the complete run of The X-Men in search of insights about late Cold War youth. Ryan emailed me (a month ago! sorry, Ryan) asking for any advice I might have, veteran blogger to rookie. My short answer, Ryan, would be to read the twenty tips I linked to above, and don’t do anything I do. Failing that, imitate your other professor, Bill Turkel. But this advice may have come too late. Though Ryan and Rollen’s blogs have only just begun, already I detect their institutional lineage in what might be called the Old is the New New house style: Smart but long posts separated by long periods of silence.

I take consolation in one fact. However inept at capturing and keeping eyeballs I may be now, I’ve come a long way since I began blogging seven years ago. I recently discovered that my very first weblog, which I began on the first day of the twenty-first century*, was not lost to the ether as I’d imagined, but carefully preserved in Blogger’s database. I’ve exhumed it all and you can now read the thirteen-month run on one long page.

This is what the experts call being “unclear on the concept.” Not the content. The content of the Ro-blog is fine. There are some funny parts, some happy personal memories (for example), and a lot of the same kinds of things I’m still blogging about today. The four part series onAmerican Nervousness” plugs right in to my current interest in the old, weird America. And I actually like the breezy tone of this younger me more than the wheezy old pedant I fear I am becoming. There’s more Grant Morrison in the Ro-blog than was probably strictly necessary, but one of the sites that inspired me to start blogging was Tom Coates‘ Morrison-inspired Barbelith (since mutated into an online forum), and I had idle dreams of Tom and I becoming best buddies. There’s also one dream-journal entry, something I generally scorn, but it was a pretty excellent dream.

In terms of getting and keeping readers, however, the Ro-blog could not have been less successful. I doubt more than three people ever knew of its existence before today, and that was by design. For reasons I cannot quite remember, I kept what I was doing totally secret, both online and in real life. In part because seven years ago, blogging felt like a weird and inexplicable thing to do (I mean, even more than now), and in part because I didn’t want anyone to read the Ro-blog until it was “done.” You’ll notice a number of short, cryptic posts, especially towards the end: “Poor little car.” “Thanksgiving. War.“** “Merry Christmas to all.” (OK, that last one isn’t especially cryptic.) I hadn’t invented Twitter five years early–those were placeholder posts that I intended to return to and expand. In those long ago days of yore***, there was no way to backdate a Blogger post, but you could always edit the text of an entry after it had been created. So if I wanted to post something on a given day, but didn’t have time or energy to do it then, I would make a placeholder post until I could come back and flesh it out. You can guess how that worked out. Actually, you don’t need to guess. You can see it in the dwindling trickle of posts from November ’01 on, and that marvelous final instruction to myself, suspended above my efforts like Ozymandias revisisted: “Less posts, more content.”

Words to live by.


*Edited to add: Now here are twenty blogging commandments I can get behind: “Yea as you walk in the Shadow of the Valley of Ideas which come not, post ye not for its own Sake, for it is better to have a Week with no Posts than an array of seven Posts about Naught.” Thanks, Sharon!

**That’s the closest the Ro-blog comes to commenting on the events of September 11 and their aftermath. You’ll see there are no posts from September, and that’s roughly the point after which all the place-holder posts go unrevised. The real world just seemed a little more important than cyberspace then. Still, that two word post–”Thanksgiving. War.”–takes me right back to the day I typed it, after driving up from Boston to Wolf Lake for Canadian Thanksgiving–always a breathtaking drive in mid-October when the Berkshire foliage is at its peak–and listening all the way to the breaking news, terrible and yet at the time still darkly thrilling, that the bombing of Afghanistan had begun.

***Wanna see something really quaint? Note how I linked to Google as “my new favorite search engine.”


The New Old is the New New

Aieee! What’s become of Old is the New New? Where’s the brown on beige color scheme that looks sickly yellow on certain browsers? Where are the long bloviating triennial posts in a skinny center column that makes them seem even longer? Where are the inside jokes and references nobody can understand? Where’s that globey-planety thing I scroll down and ignore?*

Be not afraid. I’m migrating over from Movable Type to WordPress, and I’ll be hacking the layout for a while yet, but while the new Old is the New New is under renovation, you can always find the old Old is the New New, plus its loyal sideblog The New New, at

If you’re reading this in some kind of RSS reader, please update the feed. The new RSS feed URL is

*It’s called an orrery.



Tags: The best four days in history?

The annual wargame, roleplaying game, and dressing up like an elf convention GenCon (to which I have never been, by the way) bills itself as “the best four days in gaming.” Will the American Historical Association’s annual convention, which starts tomorrow in Atlanta, be the best four days in history? I’ll let you know–I’ll be there. If you’re going to be there too, let’s meet up: drop me a line using the AHA’s weirdly archaic message system, email me (electromail chez robmacdougall dot org, not com), or just look for the guy in the totally bitchin’ elf costume.


Dr. Hodgman, I Presume

Tags: ARFFF 2006.5, Hodgman vs. Livingston, Metaphysicians of Tlon, the primal scene of American historiography, The Muppet Movie, how history judges a dream-thief.

We’re still visiting family in (y)our nation’s capital and I’m finding it hard to write the second half of my books of 2006 post without more of the books in front of me. In its stead, I thought I’d excerpt two remarkable books I did bring with me on this trip. The books are John Hodgman’s crypto-pseudo-almanac The Areas of My Expertise, and James Livingston’s philsophical critique of American intellectual history, Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy. The two books have nothing in common except that: I brought them both on vacation, they both impressed me, and they look almost identical. OK, maybe not identical identical, but they’re trade paperbacks of similar size and their covers have nearly identical color schemes. All week I was picking up Livingston and expecting it to be Hodgman or Hodgman and expecting it to be Livingston. You think you’re so clever, you tell me which is which! Read more



Tags: All reading for fun at Fessenden, our quirky electronic childhoods, the great American elevator inspector novel, I don’t know Dick.

It’s year in review time, Loyal Dozens, that magical time of year when we review the year that went by since the last time it was time to review the year between the times when it’s time to review it. I’ll dispense with such fripperies as the year in movies, music, or current events, but I read a lot of books and every year I like to take some time to record a few that stayed with me, both for their own merits and for vaguely autobiographical purposes. (I try to associate the subjects of books with the places and times where I read them. Even though you can find a copy anywhere, for instance, it’s cool to me that I bought Colson Whitehead’s old weird NYC novel The Intuitionist, along with Ann Douglas’ Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, at the awesome Strand bookstore in Greenwich Village. Or that I read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon while actually en route from Paris to the moon.) This is made easier this year by the LibraryThing account I started last December. Most people use LibraryThing to catalog the books they own, but I use the library so prodigiously that my the set of books I possess bears only a passing resemblance to the set of books that have passed under my eyeballs. Instead, I used LibraryThing to catalog books as I read them, regardless of their provenance. You can, if you care, see all the books I read in 2006 here. But here are some highlights, starting with fiction first. Read more