In the article by Robert Cottrell of The Browser that I linked to in my earlier post on blogging and intellectual curiosity, there’s a section on the way “we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing.” His comments about this really resonated with me. I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who watches posts scroll off into the ether and wishes there were some way to counteract the relentless downward pressure of the form itself — “a thin new layer of topsoil gets added each day or each week,” as Cottrell puts it, while “what’s underneath gets covered up and forgotten.”
Of course, the older posts are still “there,” in some sense, but once they scroll off the bottom of the page, their invisibility can make them seem irrelevant. But book reviews do not lose their interest or value over time — not, at least, if they are conceived of as conversations with other readers rather than marketing or promotional tools tied to publishers’ calendars. Precisely because a lot of book bloggers read on their own schedules, following their own whims, though, these conversations are particularly diffuse, unpredictable, and difficult to re-discover: more than once I’ve read a book that I know some of my blogging friends have talked about before, but I’ve been stymied by the inefficiencies of turning up who it was who said what when, and thus my own thinking is corralled and my post goes up link-less. Tag clouds and category lists are helpful as far as they go, but if you follow more than a handful of blogs, that’s not very far. And what about posts that went up before you started following someone, so you don’t even know that you should look for them? It’s bad enough that I’ll never have time for all the material I know is out there, but what about the unknown unknowns?
Some bloggers, myself included, do have an index of one kind or another to help counteract the present-centeredness of the form. I’ve tried to make mine user-friendly by organizing it into themed pages (see the tabs across the top). I know I appreciate this kind of explicit visitor’s guide when other bloggers do it (here’s Ana’s ‘Review Index,” for instance, at Things Mean A Lot; here’s Litlove’s, from Tales from the Reading Room; and here’s Jenny and Teresa’s at Shelf Love.). Still, the form of blogging – and really of all online publishing – means that we are most likely to pay attention to whatever’s on the top of the front page. As Cottrell says
You can call up a year-old piece as easily as you can call up a day-old piece. And yet we hardly ever do so, because we are so hardly ever prompted to do so. Which condemns tens if not hundreds of thousands of perfectly serviceable articles to sleep in writers’ and publishers’ archives, written off, never to be seen again.
It doesn’t have to be that way! What we need are more overt prompts, that’s all, and we can do this, as Cottrell points out, more easily than ever before. “I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine,” he proposes,
would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?
At Open Letters Monthly, we have actually begun putting a piece or two from our extensive archives onto the main Table of Contents for each issue, usually essays or reviews that somehow complement our new ones or that have renewed relevance. Here at Novel Readings I’ve re-run pieces from my own archives a few times, usually in the summer when the pace of new blogging is slow. I’ve usually felt a bit sheepish about this, but since reading Cottrell’s essay I’ve decided that not only is there no shame in it, but there’s actually value in it. By putting old (or, to use Cottrell’s more positive term, “classic”) content out in front again, I can make sure it isn’t “written off” – that it finds new readers and maybe even starts new conversations. And so I’m going to start re-posting pieces on a regular basis. I’ve never been a “new post every day” kind of blogger anyway, and I don’t intend to reduce the amount of new writing I do, but I will supplement it with “buried treasure.” Because my posts generally fall into two broad categories – academic and literary – my idea is that every week I’ll re-post one thing of each kind. If this starts to seem like too much, I’ll cut back to a “classic” piece of each kind in alternating weeks. And if I end up thinking that a lot of what’s buried deserves to stay there … well, then I’ll have to rethink this whole topic and should probably also think about why I blog in the first place!
Stay tuned, then. And if you’re sitting on your own mountain of classic content, consider bringing some of it out into the fresh light of day. Some of us might have missed it the first time, after all!
I don’t know if this is much help but for me this seems to help keep my older content in circulation.
On every page I have a right hand column that includes
1) a section of posts that are currently popular that changes constantly and includes a lot of older posts because of the following:
2) a section with links to half a dozen older posts which I change every week or so depending on traffic
3) a chronological archive
4) a tag cloud
Plus I often cross link to older related posts at the bottom of every new post.
I don’t get much traffic overall but the traffic I do get does circulate through older material fairly well.
Those all sound like good strategies, Jim.
My strategy is to shamelessly link to myself.
The receding posts still exist as my archive even if no one else looks at them. So I can just link back to Watched Plots Never Spoiling and so on rather than repeat the argument.
How this works when trying to use other people’s blogs, though, that is, as you say, a mystery.
I too use shameless self-linking as a strategy – but do you think people really follow those links? Or if they do, are they likely to jump in on a conversation that ended months (or more) ago? I too like having old posts as a kind of back-story for new ones – no repeating the arguments, as you say. But my impression, admittedly not supported by any particular data, is still that people mostly read (and almost exclusively comment on) what’s right in front, or at the top, or whatever the right metaphor is. Maybe that’s as it should be.
I do not really pay attention to my “statistics” so I have no idea who is reading what.
A “back-story for new ones” – yes, exactly, that is just what I meant.
One thing I should do more of – I see you doing it and should mimic you – is not repeating old arguments but explicitly re-visiting them. Four years later, I might have something new to say.
Really interesting, Rohan. I have a permanent set of links on my homepage (since it’s the kind of blog that benefits from obvious first principles), and I do a dreadful amount of linking to my own past posts. The effect of those two measures is very consistent traffic to the archives. Not huge, but consistent. I also use Twitter to promote posts from archives every weekend. I find any self-promotion to be agonizing, but you are absolutely right that old content will be new to someone! Thanks.
Simon over at Stuck in a Book has a recurring feature called “Five from the Archives” that’s a clever way of drawing attention to older posts. He’ll select a theme and choose five of his old reviews of books on that theme (http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/five-from-archive-index.html). People seem to enjoy sharing their own ideas for books that fit the theme too, so it’s an easy way to get some light conversation going.
From what I can tell, we don’t get tons of people looking at our index pages, but I’m glad we have them. I think they’re most useful for people discovering the blog for the first time who want an overview of the kinds of books we read. I always look for an index page when I discover a new blog.
That’s a really good idea! I wonder how well I’d be able to divvy things up into groups like that. I think I have some really big groups (like “books about books”) and then a lot of more miscellaneous topics! But that’s a nice way, as you say, to bring people into the conversation by suggesting books or sharing their own related ones. Hmmm. As I go along in this archival project, I might experiment with something along these lines.