If you’re looking for an amusing diversion, imagine how other-century writers might have embraced the digital domain: Montaigne in his Bordeaux tower wired for Wi-Fi, or Virginia Woolf, her dark and surprising London streets made navigable by Global Positioning. One of my students, upon wrestling with Hazlitt, informed the class: “He’s just a cranky blogger.” What-if games are products of a myopic culture, and every culture’s guilty, but such speculation can raise profound questions: how would an earlier writer have handled the breadth and speed of the blogosphere, and how would her work have been affected? How is ours?
In a 2010 Paris Review piece titled “What Bloggers Owe Montaigne,” Sarah Bakewell remarked, “Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible.” In “Why I Blog,” an essay for The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan voiced similar sentiments:
“Perhaps the quintessential blogger avant la lettre was Montaigne,” he writes, arguing that Montaigne “was living his skepticism, daring to show how a writer evolves, changes his mind, learns new things, shifts perspectives, grows older—and that this, far from being something that needs to be hidden behind a veneer of unchanging authority, can become a virtue, a new way of looking at the pretensions of authorship and text and truth. Montaigne, for good measure, also peppered his essays with myriads of what bloggers would call external links. His own thoughts are strewn with and complicated by the [End Page 165] aphorisms and anecdotes of others. Scholars of the sources note that many of these “money quotes” were deliberately taken out of context, adding layers of irony to writing that was already saturated in empirical doubt.
This is an intriguing revision of the literary past—the father of the modern essay as a kind of pre-blogger. Of course, Montaigne’s amendments, additions, and amplifications were not hastened by go-live Internet hustle, the light speed at which most bloggers by necessity work; Montaigne, distracted by his estate, family, and political affairs, cognizant of the value of reflection, deliberated for years, not an afternoon. We live in an astonishingly rapid media and content-delivery culture, and one certain thing is that the rise of the Internet in the last decade and a half has created a permanent virtual second home for a writer beyond his desk, a site from which to self-promote books and reading tours, explore and extol other authors, and, increasingly, self-publish in a twenty-first-century ignore-the-gatekeepers version of pamphleteering, driven by 1s, 0s, and the “publish” button. There are over a hundred million active blogs, and the formal changes driven by tech-design and performance demand that tomorrow’s blogs look quite different from yesterday’s. It’s a Sisyphean task, surveying the writers’ blogosphere and Twitter feeds, taking the long view of Internet self-publishing at the cusp of the new century. The daily “I”-driven onslaught of tweets, posts, comments to posts, and comments to comments overwhelms.
The rise of online literary journals, micro-autobiographical Tweeting, and pithy Facebook statuses is changing the shape of autobiographical expression. I don’t mean to suggest that brevity is an invention of the contemporary mind: each century since antiquity has seen masters of the epigram, witty, profound, and infinitely small, and for centuries the prose poem has explored lyric declaration within modest spaces; more recently, Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones have edited anthologies devoted to the contemporary short essay (In Short and In Brief). But small is sexy now, and the Internet, in particular, is courting. Online readers seem to prefer (or at least to accept) fields of comprehension smaller than traditionally offered in print literary journals or magazines. Will smaller and smaller essays follow, forms affected by tools? Smart phones and tablets, portable and alive in Wi-Fi zones, encourage bite-sized readings and less...