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A primer for newbies to the woolly blogosphere

February 11, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg | Special to The Times

Ultimate Blogs

Masterworks From the Wild Web

Edited by Sarah Boxer

Vintage: 344 pp., $14.95 paper


IN 2008, are blogs really so foreign that they need explanation? The premise behind "Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web" indicates that they do. I'm not sure to whom -- perhaps those who choose to go to Bayreuth for the Ring Cycle rather than surf the Web or people who simply haven't noticed that they are reading blogs already -- but for them, this introduction of blog masterworks is as timely as fine wine. The book is an anthology of some of the best writing to appear on blogs, vetted by editor Sarah Boxer, the New York Times' first Web critic.

Perhaps that should be "best narratives." Among her 27 selections are comic strips and a blog of photographs, illustrating that the Web is, yes, a multimedia experience. Admittedly, the book stops short of including audio or video blogs -- but that's jumping ahead to what's not here, the omissions and excisions that will annoy those already familiar with the blogosphere. (I'd link to that part of the article, but try to bear with this linear format instead.)

What is included: excerpts of 27 genuinely fantastic blogs. There are more than 15 million active blogs, and Boxer brings a generalist's curiosity to her task, finding engaging writing on classical music, miscarriage, Iraq and more.

Take, for example, two blogs from Los Angeles. On Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, writes "[B]ig ideas are fun, and concepts like entropy and complexity are far from completely understood, so perhaps it's permissible to let our imaginations run a little freely here," as he muses on quantum computation and the complexity of the universe. The Fug Girls focus on the fashion universe, directing their remarks to celebrities on the red carpet. "[T]he balloon skirt is a problem . . .," they write to actress Anne Hathaway in a December 2006 post. "My grandma had a doll that sat on top of her toilet. Her crocheted gown belled out to cover the extra roll of toilet paper that lived up there. As a child, this fascinated me. Why didn't the toilet paper at my house have outfits? Why didn't everything in my house have outfits: the spatulas, the drinking glasses, the cat? 'Because that would be tacky,' my mother told me." The common thread is the excellent (and personal and sometimes edgy) writing.

The people behind the blogs are both well-known and unknown. One Nobel laureate -- economist Gary Becker -- dialogues with federal court judge Richard Posner on the thoughtful political blog Becker-Posner. At the other end of the spectrum, El Guapo, a U.S.-born Guatemalan living in Washington, D.C -- who writes with the skill of Hunter S. Thompson in his heyday -- insists on remaining anonymous. The anthology is enriched by its juxtapositions, although with this kind of diversity, a few pieces will undoubtedly resonate more than others.

"Ultimate Blogs" is presented as a breezy trip through the best of the literate blogosphere. "I gave up trying to tame the wildness of the Web and decided the best order would be alphabetical," Boxer writes of her framework for the book. "That way the blogs can speak to one another more freely." But her selections are less serendipitous than she wants to let on. She mentions that finding a good military blog should be, with 1,500 of them cataloged on a single site, "like shooting fish in a barrel. Wrong." It's clear that, to come up with these 27 gems, Boxer must have combed through thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of blogs.

That project seems almost infinite. Most blogs are updated regularly -- some multiple times a day. Boxer has pulled excerpts of just a few pages from each, sometimes spanning several years. Much, by necessity, is left out. This is clear from the first distractingly ellipses-loaded excerpt, from the self-explanatory AngryBlackBitch. It was enough to send this completist, blog-comfortable reader to the computer to discover what was missing.

The Web address of each blog is provided, so going to the source is easy enough. But those ellipses are maddening. And sometimes, what they elide is the engagement of the anthologized blog with another online source. Bloggers typically link to other stories, by way of commenting, informing or complicating their own writing. (As you've guessed, this is where the link from above would have led.) Segments that rely on these links to make sense have been largely purged from these excerpts. "You cannot click on a link in a printed book" Boxer writes, adding: "So no links here, folks." But, stripped of its links, is a blog post really a blog post? Blogs exist in an ecosystem that is, in great part, about interconnectedness.

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