Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Drizzly. Dense mist in evening. Yellow moon."

The Orwell Prize is presenting George Orwell's diaries from August, 1938 as a blog. The title of this post is taken from his entry for August 10, 1938; as a blog post it's garnered 39 comments.

Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th-century London diarist who witnessed the fire of 1666 and invented Peeps marshmallow treats as a way to humorously explain the pronunciation of his name*, has been digitally resurrected in a similar fashion. On august 11, 1665, he was thinking about "wind" and his dietary habits:
so long as I keepe myself in company at meals and do there eat lustily (which I cannot do alone, having no love to eating, but my mind runs upon my business), I am as well as can be, but when I come to be alone, I do not eat in time, nor enough, nor with any good heart, and I immediately begin to be full of wind, which brings my pain, till I come to fill my belly a-days again, then am presently well.

Would Pepys have kept a blog had he been born in another time? Would Orwell have kept one? It's equally impossible to infer an author's intent or answer time-traveling hypothetical questions, so it might be more fruitful to ask what, if anything, changes, in the translation from one format to another. Though they weren't meant for publication, the diaries nonetheless make for interesting reading. This is partly a property of the writing itself: it's engaging. But it is also a property of the history and culture that has surrounded the figures behind the diaries. Blogs don't necessarily possess either property. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two forms is the relation of direct experience as opposed to an endless reference to other parts of culture. Experience is always at the forefront of these diaries; culture stands a distance back. Which is all to say that what matters most is content, not the format--a concept so rarely embraced on the internet that it takes some time to recognize it when encountered.

*This is not true. Pepys did witness the fire, but Peeps were invented by Robert Oppenheimer as a way to atone for his guilt about having helped to create the atom bomb**.

**This is also not true.

Update: The New York Times has weighed in on this same topic.

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