Oxymoronic 'Book of Blogs'

What to make of "Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web"? The new book, edited by Sarah Boxer, the New York Times's first (now former) "Web critic," endeavors to compile an anthology of the best posts from the best Web logs. "W," you might ask, "TF?" To what end this dead-tree blogroll? Is this a sincere attempt to explain the blogging phenomenon-which some estimate is, in its current form, more than 15 years old to off-the-grid grandmas across America? Or is this compilation a cynical ploy to cash in on free content?

Boxer seems sincere in her quixotic quest to find a handful of blogs that she says she loves for "the writing, the thinking, the drawing and the photos." In her introduction she assures us that in her book "everything is bloggy to the core." Meaning ... what, exactly? As of December 2007 the blog search engine Technorati was tracking 112 million blogs. How to distill that huge number to a few essential characteristics? Well, blogs tend to include outbound links to other sites, commentary on funkiness found in the news and Web flotsam, comments from readers and responses to those comments by blog authors. They are timely and interactive, and they couldn't exist offline.

So why put them in a book and strip them of the very things that make them "bloggy"? Here you'll find excerpts from 27 online journals-comprising punditry, poetry, ranting, raving and drawing of both pictures and conclusions. You'll also find some wonderful writing; you'll laugh, cry and scratch your head. But you won't find links, reader comments or any sort of dialogue. Boxer, to her credit, is well aware of the pickle she's put herself into. "The bloggers in this anthology are, for the most part, out of the fray," she writes in the introduction. "They write more than they link, and they're read more than they are linked to." So basically she's chosen to put into a book entries from the blogs that are ... least like blogs. Or, at least, most like books.

Take the most striking example. In "Ultimate Blogs" you'll find excerpts from the Diary of Samuel Pepys, a 17th-century English naval administrator and member of Parliament. Beginning Jan. 1, 2003, a Web designer and programmer named Phil Gyford began serializing Pepys's diary online as a blog. The result is a fascinating experiment and a wickedly fun read. But why include it here? The Pepys (pronounced peeps) diary was originally published as a book. Yes, it was neat to see how it translated to the Web. But now, for reasons that are never explained, here we have it in book form again. Dizzy yet?

Boxer clearly respects her bloggers, even if this project is slightly absurd. "They are bold even when sharing their shame and obsessions," she writes. "Anonymous or not, they are what they write. In the virtual world they are the town criers, the chiefs, and the village idiots ... Whether they tell the truth or not is another matter, but WTF. It would be hard to fake what they do, and it's kind of unbelievable that they live out in the open, fair game to all snipers. The only trick is finding them." And Boxer has indeed found some good ones.

Take, for example Julia {Here Be Hippogriffs}, the online journal of a mother of one precocious son. It's hard to read and not to get swept into Julia Litton's saga of enduring 11 miscarriages in attempts to have more children, even if some of the travails detailed in this book are nearly two years old. David Friedman logs his off-beat ideas and Steven Wright-style observations at Ironic Sans. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, the New Yorker's classical music critic, initiates a thoughtful dialogue on the etiquette of applauding at live performances. And Angry Black Bitch may indeed be angry, but her profane observations on race, seen through the prism of the King Kong plotline, are simultaneously thoughtful, hilarious and depressing. But, and here's the fatal rub, her post on the capture of Saddam Hussein, while entertaining, does feel stale in 2008.

This occurs frequently throughout. Boxer includes Get Your War On-which, let's be honest, is a comic strip, not a blog. The content is laugh-out-loud funny. But the jokes included here begin with the American invasion of Afghanistan and don't get much fresher. If you want current GYWO humor, you'd be better served by simply bookmarking the site on your computer at work. Then there's the Smoking Gun. It's a compendium of damning investigative journalism, dirt unearthed by a former Village Voice reporter with the aid of the Freedom of Information Act. The writing is witty and breezy, yes, but does printing celebrity mug shots and State Department lists of gifts to federal employees by "foreign government sources" constitute a blog? Or is it an online news source with a tabloid bent, à la Drudge Report or TMZ? Hard to know.

Boxer has gone out of her way to seek out content that can make the leap from one medium to another. But the question remains, is it a leap forward, backward or sideways? Sure, she has succeeded in reducing the boiling cauldron of the blogosphere to 27 worthwhile reads. Imagine how much garbage she must have sifted through to find these gems. Imagine the gems she was forced to leave out. In the end, the beauty of the book is that if you discover any bloggers that absolutely thrill you, chances are they're still online doing their thing. Which is exactly where they belong.