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Signifyin’ Cronin: The Un-Gate

In his first piece about blogging, Blaise Cronin, dean of Indiana’s SLIS, insulted bloggers in a low-power imitation of Gorman’s earlier cerebral flatulence. Both pieces had the same elements: a mocking definition; wild, vague critiques of blogs; an unfamiliarity with modern technology alarming for a major figure in librarianship. Both pieces grew legs and walked into the blogosphere (Cronin to a far lesser extent than Gorman), offering excellent proof to the rest of the world that librarians are pitiful throwbacks, 21st century cobblers who should be indulged their last few years on this planet.

In his follow-up piece, Cronin, as Gorman did, presents uncited quotes out of context, using snippets of the most acerbic responses to his scorched-earth assessment of blogging as inviolate proof that bloggers are ignorant pond scum. His circular argument was answered beautifully by Phil Bradley: “if all that he wants to do is write negatively about both weblogs and the people that write them, he shouldn’t expect a good debate, because he is not offering one himself.” Despite this, quite a few people debated back better than they got from Cronin, with sometimes rough but largely spot-on observations from Cronin survivors, other librarians, and pundits at large.

Cronin concludes his second piece with a quotation from Samuel Johnson (“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency”). Johnson doesn’t get invoked too often in the MFA program I’m in–not a writing style we’re encouraged to emulate–but once upon a time I was an English major who lived and breathed the 18th century. Samuel Johnson is one of my personal heros, as is his biographer, the oft-misunderstood James Boswell who let himself be a foil and if need be a fool to illuminate his grand subject.

Johnson, like Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and The Beatles, is all too quotable, and out of context has been bastardized to sell everything from new cars to old ideas. So naturally, I had to look up the quote. Using a Notoriously Inefficient Search Engine, I quickly tracked Johnson’s words to Rambler #55, September 25, 1750.

The Rambler was a blog set in lead type, 208 genre-busting essays published in a three-year period, featuring Johnson’s regularly-updated personal commentary and often written so close to deadline that many issues went to press without editorial review. In the first issue of the Rambler, Johnson noted that “men [sic] more frequently require to be reminded than informed,” a statement that not only flattered his readers but was an aesthetic call to arms, underscoring that it is not the ideas but how they are expressed that makes everything new again.

Rambler #55 is a story told as a letter written by Parthenia, a distaff stand-in for Johnson’s aesthetics and his impatience with the literary old guard. Parthenia’s mother envies her beauty and youth and is alarmed by Parthenia’s rapid and precocious growth. Parthenia is insulted, uninvited, and feared by her mother, who refuses to judge Parthenia on her own merits. Parthenia notes more broadly the cultural rule that the old guard treats observations of newcomers, however spot-on, as “rebellion” or “peevishness,” assuming they are listened to at all. Parthenia/Johnson also observes that “you will readily believe that it is difficult to please. Every word and look is an offence.” Ring a bell?

In her concluding sentences, Parthenia is blunt. She points out that adults who resist aging “may refuse to grow wise, [yet] they must inevitably grow old,” then rather cruelly if dispassionately predicts that “those who are so unwilling to quit the world will soon be driven from it.” Parthenia’s comments are more delicately phrased, perhaps, than the responses provoked by Cronin’s first rant, but are no less pointed and on target. Change or die, mutha, but don’t diss me on the way to your cultural grave.

The Rambler, though hugely popular (think Daily Kos), was still rough craft. The ability to publish so fast gave Johnson little time to observe that his essays were often too abstract and distant from the events of the day. In Johnson’s next blogging experiment, the Idler (104 essays published between 25 April 1758 and 5 April 1760), Johnson continued to address broad subjects but wrapped them in topical buzz delivered by average Joes, a technique my writing program does approve of which informs the humor of television shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond as well as some of the better blogs, which only appear to be off-the-cuff writing.

Things happen in threes, so I assume we’ll see one more “bloggers be real dumb” post from some gilded librarian. I’m less interested in that final incident than in the world that comes next, perhaps much later, when we are the old guard reacting to young upstarts suddenly towering over us. Perhaps some of us will remember what we said to Gorman and Cronin back in the day. If we don’t, no doubt, others will be quick to remind us.

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