April 12-18, 2006

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Samuel Pepys

Peeping Back at Pepys: Compare your daily life to the rounds of the famous diarist some 400 years ago at PepysDiary.com.

Order Out of Chaos

An enlightened binary project for the digital age

By Brett Ascarelli

Because the blog's entire raison d'être is to provide a means for self-publication, it seems appropriate that literature, which best goes hand-in-hand with publication, has carved out a sizeable niche for itself in the ever-growing blogosphere. What follows is a type-A attempt to impose some structure on all this overlap and give the litblogosphere what the Enlightenment gave the universe: its own taxonomy. Here's a start.

The Co-Op The blog is the cheapest way to publish and the most painless: no red-cheeked rejection, and in most cases, no editorial "fat cutting." But the monstrous proliferation of these digital logs leaves many a bloggers' two cents floating in the binary ether and falling victim to the dreaded "0 comments" fate. Perhaps in response to this disappointment, MetaxuCafé (www.metaxucafe.com) began consolidating litblog material into a kind of one-stop supermarket for web surfers, highlighting snippets from member sites that discuss everything from publishing and reading, to literary criticism and book reviews.

Writing in Process Reading first-draft blogs can be funny and can telescope directly into the heart of the creative process. At www.adorasvitak.com, one Willard Mardi offers "The Young Folk's Guide to Beasties," a brainstorm on all aspects, from history to daily habits, of what are most likely the incipient stages of a novel. The funny part: Mardi is actually an alias for eight-year-old Adora Svitak, a writing prodigy who published her first book at age seven, has written over 300 precocious stories, types 70 words per minute and whose website opens with a Good Morning America sound bite lauding her.

The Famous Ones Until last year, Berkeley novelist Ayelet Waldman kept a juicy, highly confessional blog (www.bad-mother.blogspot.com), spilling her guts out to readers while she dealt with depression and motherhood, and making us feel like best-friend-type confidantes, rather than just less accomplished writers loafing on the Internet. But when Salon.com gave Waldman a permanent column for which they would actually pay, she gave up the blog. Such is the tenuous fate of famous-author blogs, especially those that don't just function as event bulletin boards. (Her husband, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, keeps a "web-only" section of his website, www.michaelchabon.com, that is virtually a blog.)

Alternatively, the Portland bookstore chain Powells appoints one guest author every few days to post on its blog (www.powells.com/blog/). The New Yorker's "Letters from Paris" writer Adam Gopnik was on blog duty during last December's New York transit strike and compares it to those that overwhelmed Paris in 1995. He describes in excruciatingly charming detail his coping strategy--sitting it out with his six-year-old daughter at the movies. Moral: Famous authors get bewitched by Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, too.

Crit Seeing the process of a nonprofessional book reviewer writing in real-life context is quite a different experience than reading the New York Times Book Review section. But you gotta hand it to individual bloggers for having the stamina to plow through thousands of pages to be able to post frequent reviews. Leigh Anne Wilson's Chicago-based Books Are Pretty (www.booksarepretty.blogspot.com) exemplifies the struggle in her review of William Makepeace Thackeray's dense tome Vanity Fair. "I finished the book today, reading the last few pages while . . . literally fighting off my children, who were taking turns leaping on me and using me as a human trampoline. Forgive me if I may not have fully absorbed all the nuances of Thackeray's masterpiece, but at least I got the basic plotline down."

For more traditional reviews, the Complete Review (www.complete-review.com) cuts out the personal color, scrutinizing a wide range of books (including foreign) and awarding them letter grades. The links on this site are also a great starting point for Bohemian readers who venture to draw up their own litblog taxonomies (it's more fun than you think!).

Lit News These comprise the bulk of the litblogosphere, covering every little newsy tidbit imaginable. On the really good sites, this gossipy op-ed is accompanied by highly organized lists of original author interviews and book reviews. Bookslut (www.bookslut.com), edited out of Chicago by Jessica Crispin, is one of the most famous and actually hosts its own reading series (physical, not virtual). Other notable sites of this genre are Moorish Girl (www.moorishgirl.com), edited by the political Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami, who concentrates her posts on global literature.

Novelty Among the more unusual litblogs is one kept by London-based website builder Phil Gyford, who posts the daily contents of 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys,' a 17th-century Parliament member renowned for his detailed journal. On www.pepysdiary.com, one can read what Pepys ate for supper on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 1660: "Beef, cabbage and a collar of brawn"--that's boar meat. Yum.

So here's the discovery. After trying to organize the litblogosphere into the neat and tidy cubbies of an Enlightenment encyclopedia, chaos still infiltrates the order imposed. But it's this chaos which spawns imagination and literature in the first place, and that's what makes litblogs, at the crossroads of art and life, such a good idea.

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