Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Offshoot of the Buzz

With my one-year anniversary of this blog in the recent past and The Book Blogger Convention fast-approaching, I've been thinking about what I want this space to be and about book blogging in general. The two recent posts about reviewing and subjectivity generated such interesting feedback that I'm going to write a few more in a mini-series about a few issues in book blogging. Here's the next.

There is a great scene in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous where the excitable, huckster frontman of up-and-coming Southern rock band Stillwater tries to describe what rock and roll is all about:

JEFF BEBE: What it all comes down to is that thing, that indefinable thing when people catch something from your music. What I'm talking about is...wait, what am I talking about?


JEFF BEBE: The buzz, yes. And the chicks and the whatever is an offshoot off the buzz.

As much as Bebe is selling himself to his interviewer, he strikes something true here about music and the arts in general; it's damn hard to talk about how a work of art affects you. The right words for how you felt at the end of The Grapes of Wrath or the experience of As I Lay Dying or the delight of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are frustratingly elusive.

And so we get "offshoots of the buzz"--placeholders and substitutes for the "indefinable thing" of reading something great. This is a particular malady of book blogging, rather than try to relay our own experience so that someone else might understand it, we make lists of our favorite sci-fi settings. Or fetishize bookshelves. Or geek out about meeting an author or completing a challenge of reading a book for every letter in the alphabet or doing a weekly round-up of what we picked up a the library.

That's not a critique of these practices; I know many people enjoy them. Still, I can't help but wonder if sometimes we mistake the trappings of reading with the thing we like about reading. Do I really like deckle edges, or is just a Pavlovian expectation of something new and interesting? Do I really care who won the Pulitzer Prize or is it just something I can discuss more easily than how sublime the descriptions in say, Gilead, are?

Are we really writing about what we love about reading or just writing about those things about reading that are easier to write about?


  1. I think about this a lot, especially when I find myself spending much of the day reading ABOUT books, instead of reading books. The "architecture around books" (as David Ulin would say) - blogging, commenting on blogs, keeping up with the news, tracking awards, getting ARCs, predicting publishing trends, anticipating new releases, lamenting the disappearance of bookstores, going to events, hosting events, attending book clubs......

    Sometimes I wonder WHY I'm doing it. And I think the only answer is that we do these things in order not to feel alone. It's same reason why we read books to begin with - to connect, to disappear, to share the deepest experiences in life with another person (even if that person is fictional). And we "blog" etc. for the same reason - to connect. I know I'll never be able to express, in writing, the elation, or the intense despair, I feel when reading one of my favorite books, but I try anyway. Because I have to. I have to tell other people about it, and I need to hear (however imperfectly) that they, too, are experiencing the same things through books. We read alone, but we do all this other stuff to make sure we're not *really* alone.

  2. Point Reading Ape (as usual.)

  3. I have also wondered many times whether I just read to look impressive and smart. Like I have something to prove. And I certainly worry all the time that the right books are displayed on my mantel. After all, I want to make sure everyone knows how many large books I've read. I think I'm a pretentious asshole. At least I'm beginning to understand myself.

  4. Before I chime in on the topic of subjectivity and "the buzz", I will qualify that I drink way more wine than I read books. I go to wine festivals and galas and tastings and have multiple series of Gruner, Cornas, CdP and Rioja Alta. I rarely miss an opportunity to taste something new. I'm a sucker for Washington State Merlot with its layers of bramble and caramel.

    Similar to literature, there are wines that capture the moment because the moment is worth capturing or the flavors and smell evoke a personal experience. In those epiphanal moments, you crave a companion in your elation. A shared epiphany births joy.

    Sure literature is subjective, but great moments in literature are poignant, and what The Ape finds poignant may not be poignant for me. However, when The Ape and I both can gush over MATTERHORN, EAST OF EDEN, THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE or THE HOUSE OF MIRTH a connection is made. Blogging has created opportunities for subjective authorities (bloggers) to reach an audience with similar bias where epiphanies may be shared. We read and comment because an emotional connection exists - the buzz. It has nothing to do with the lists or challenges, it has to do with the emotions evoked from shared poignant moments. Whether it be the 2006 Domaine du Tunnel Cornas Vin Noir of Lee & Samuel discussing Timshel, the joy of my elation is amplified when shared - the buzz, either literally or literary, ensues.

    Now, I wish I could get The Ape to drink more wine. Cheers!

  5. I think that like any group of people who come together in common purpose, book bloggers want to create community. The things that you describe are to me the outward trappings of the culture of reading. Being only cyber-connected to one another, blogging readers need to contrive ways to make connections that might otherwise occur naturally.

  6. Input from the less think-y camp: I do the extras of book-ing because I'm a little OCD. The overly organized bookshelves, the crossing books off TBR lists, etc- those are symptoms of a thing that doesn't have anything to do with reading. I'm a control freak, and because reading is such a huge part of my life, the controlling actions spill over into it. I suspect we're all a little bit controlling- only someone who needs a tight grip would subject themselves to perusing 1000 Books To Read Before You Turn Left on Main Street, or to recording every library book they EVER CHECK OUT EVER IN LIFE.

  7. Morgan-
    I think that's definitely part of it. The positive term for beating back the solitude I guess is "community," by I suspect that you've hit the heart of the matter. Using your equation, the more someone memes, challenges, lists, etc, the more they feel their own reading experience to be insufficient to fill the void. Dark, man. Dark.

    I know what you mean. The question is, does anyone actually care about what books are on your mantle? Have you ever been impressed by this?

    That's a good comparison, and I think this idea that all of the secondary behaviors around anything you love is to try to capture, reflect on, recreate, or transmit an emotional response. The fiendish part though is I am not sure if that particular goal is possible.

    That is a good extension of Morgan's point, but I would then ask "why connect with each other in these ways and not some other way?" Or "can we connect in ways that are deeper and more meaningful?"

    Control. That's REALLY interesting. How about this idea. For those of us who read A LOT, those individual reading experiences are damn hard to remember/capture/retain. So these controlling activities are an attempt to control the chaos of time and memory, to manage, organize, and categorize that ethereal "buzz" we get from reading. This would apply to people (like me) who are not on the OCD spectrum. Just look at my bathroom. No, please don't.

  8. This is a great post, Ape, as usual. A few months back, I found myself so caught up in blogging about books that I realized that the two things that I love most, reading and (creative) writing, had slowed to a crawl. I've tried to correct the balance and the blog has fallen off a bit, but so be it. I think there is a value to connecting with others on the pages of a blog over a shared love (and we share many), but I think it takes a very balanced person not to let the trappings of the space around literature detract from a first-hand experience and appreciation of literature, which is what brings us together in the first place.

  9. Ape - I agree that reading is often a solitary activity. Two readers rarely read the same passage simultaneously unless reading aloud. Then, the response, or lack thereof, may not be the same.

    Adam D'Augelli writes a blog I follow, and he argues the reason we broadcast is for nostalgia's sake. Says Mr D'Augelli "think of a traditional photo album – while my Mom may emphasize its value for sharing – she’s not necessarily sharing the photo itself – but rather sharing the memory that that photo represents."

    The development of blogging and social web allows us to easily archive and share those archival activities. We did the archiving prior, but on a less public scale (and probably less effectively). At the end of the day, the driving force is likely our own nostalgia.

  10. Ape.

    The last few posts have been even more amazing than usual and I commend you. The things you brought up have been on my mind these past few days and it was a much needed reminder.

    I haven't been posting much recently, but blogging has been on my mind. How to do it better, what it's for, what it means.

    I've long thought and (and said in my grumpy way) that our literary community is far from its best self, too frivolous at times, too concerned with news and events on the periphery of our true focus (reading and writing). There's an app that tells writers who they write like and our little world gets drunk on it for a few days.

    These last few posts of yours make me think of bloggers and reviewers sometimes wandering to the periphery of our true focus too.

    I like what Morgan said above, about the "architecture of books." We (writers, bloggers, reviewers etc.) are all rather enamored of that stuff.

    Thank you for such a great post.

  11. Love this post, for one. For two, I definitely think that sometimes we post about the experience around reading more than reading itself because we can't fully explain our particular flavor of buzziness to someone else.

    I've got a co-worker who reads some amazing, thought provoking books and I asked her once if she ever thought about blogging. Her response was that reading for her was a solitary experience and that trying to explain why she loved or hated a book would be an exercise in futility because she'd never fully be able to encompass the range of emotions she feels in the process of reading a book. It's hers and hers alone.

    That idea gave me serious pause when considering my own blog, because I'm not one of those bloggers that marks quotes for later or makes notes while I'm reading. I read and I blog about my impressions once I'm done. Because the act of reading to me is one I don't want to disturb with blogging. But I blog because I want to exist and create a community of like-minded readers. I like when the buzz I felt about a book is justified by other readers who had the same feelings. I feel like I'm participating in the reading experience on a fuller basis if someone else had a similar emotional response. But it's not necessary for me to have that response in the first place. Just as writing about deckled edges and cover art and bookcase design enhance my experience, but they certainly don't replace it.

    Just my thoughts on the "buzz." Love that scene in Almost Famous though :).

  12. In my mind it all goes back to the person's purpose for reading, and for blogging. And, frankly, to their general intellect and ability to think critically about books. I guess it's not really politically correct to point this out, but it's true. And people who read purely for escapism don't always read books that require much critical thinking. I do appreciate the bloggers that are trying to create a community for more literary bloggers-you know, like you with these posts!

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