Unrest in the Middle East. Cartoons circulated and Danish flags set ablaze (who knew there were so many Danish flags?) A high-profile debate in the pages of the New York Times between a prominent atheist and a Judeo-Christian humanist. Another setback for the “intelligent design” folks, this time in Utah. Things have been busy of late. The world rife with conflict: belief and disbelief, secular pluralism and religious extremism, faith and reason, and all the hazy territory in between.
Mitchell Stephens, too, has been busy, grappling with all the above on Without Gods while trying to muster the opening chapters of his book — the blog serving as both helper and hindrance to his process (a fascinating paradox that haunts the book in the network). To reflect these busy times — and Mitch’s busy mind — the blog has undergone slight renovation, reflecting the busier layout of a newspaper while hopefully remaining accessible and easy to read.
There’s a tag cloud near the top serving as a sort of snapshot of Mitch’s themes and characters, while four topic areas to the side give the reader more options for navigating the site. In some ways the new design also reminds me of the clutter of a writer’s desk — a method-infused madness.
As templates were updated and wrinkles ironed out in the code, Mitch posted a few reflections on the pluses and pitfalls of this infant form, the blog:
Newspapers, too, began, in the 17th century, by simply placing short items in columns (in this case from top down). So it was possible to read on page four of a newspaper in England in 1655 that Cardinal Carassa is one of six men with a chance to become the next pope and then read on page nine of the same paper that Carassa “is newly dead.” Won’t we soon be getting similar chuckles out of these early blogs — where leads are routinely buried under supporting paragraphs; where whim is privileged, coherence discouraged; where the newly dead may be resurrected as one scrolls down.
Early newspapers eventually discovered the joys of what journalism’s first editor called a “continued relation.” Later they discovered layout.
Blogs have a lot of discovering ahead of them.
It appears that Amazon is going to start hosting blogs for authors. Sort of. Amazon Connect, a new free service designed to boost sales and readership, will host what are essentially stripped-down blogs where registered authors can post announcements, news and general musings. Eventually, customers can keep track of individual writers by subscribing to bulletins that collect in an aggregated “plog” stream on their Amazon home page. But comments and RSS feeds — two of the most popular features of blogs — will not be supported. Engagement with readers will be strictly one-way, and connection to the larger blogosphere basically nil. A missed opportunity if you ask me.
Then again, Amazon probably figured it would be a misapplication of resources to establish a whole new province of blogland. This is more like the special events department of a book store — arranging readings, book singings and the like. There has on occasion, however, been some entertaining author-public interaction in Amazon’s reader reviews, most famously Anne Rice’s lashing out at readers for their chilly reception of her novel Blood Canticle (link – scroll down to first review). But evidently Connect blogs are not aimed at sparking this sort of exchange. Genuine literary commotion will have to occur in the nooks and crannies of Amazon’s architecture.
It’s interesting, though, to see this happening just as our own book-blog experiment, Without Gods, is getting underway. Over the past few weeks, Mitchell Stephens has been writing a blog (hosted by the institute) as a way of publicly stoking the fire of his latest book project, a narrative history of atheism to be published next year by Carroll and Graf. While Amazon’s blogs are mainly for PR purposes, our project seeks to foster a more substantive relationship between Mitch and his readers (though, naturally, Mitch and his publisher hope it will have a favorable effect on sales as well). We announced Without Gods a little over two weeks ago and already it has collected well over 100 comments, a high percentage of which are thoughtful and useful.
We are curious to learn how blogging will impact the process of writing the book. By working partially in the open, Mitch in effect raises the stakes of his research — assumptions will be challenged and theses tested. Our hunch isn’t so much that this procedure would be ideal for all books or authors, but that for certain ones it might yield some tangible benefit, whether due to the nature or breadth of their subject, the stage they’re at in their thinking, or simply a desire to try something new.
An example. This past week, Mitch posted a very thinking-out-loud sort of entry on “a positive idea of atheism” in which he wrestles with Nietzsche and the concepts of void and nothingness. This led to a brief exchange in the comment stream where a reader recommended that Mitch investigate the writings of Gora, a self-avowed atheist and figure in the Indian independence movement in the 30s. Apparently, Gora wrote what sounds like a very intriguing memoir of his meeting with Gandhi (whom he greatly admired) and his various struggles with the religious component of the great leader’s philosophy. Mitch had not previously been acquainted with Gora or his writings, but thanks to the blog and the community that has begun to form around it, he now knows to take a look.
What’s more, Mitch is currently traveling in India, so this could not have come at a more appropriate time. It’s possible that the commenter had noted this from a previous post, which may have helped trigger the Gora association in his mind. Regardless, these are the sorts of the serendipitous discoveries one craves while writing book. I’m thrilled to see the blog making connections where none previously existed.
Just in time for the holidays, a little god-free fun…
The institute is pleased to announce the launch of Without Gods, a new blog by New York University journalism professor and media historian Mitchell Stephens that will serve as a public workshop and forum for the writing of his latest book. Mitch, whose previous works include A History of News and the rise of the image the fall of the word, is in the early stages of writing a narrative history of atheism, to be published in 2007 by Carroll and Graf. The book will tell the story of the human struggle to live without gods, focusing on those individuals, “from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists,” who have undertaken the cause of atheism – “a cause that promises no heavenly reward.”
Without Gods will be a place for Mitch to think out loud and begin a substantive exchange with readers. Our hope is that the conversation will be joined, that ideas will be challenged, facts corrected, queries and probes answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. As Mitch says: “We expect that the book’s acknowledgements will eventually include a number of individuals best known to me by email address.”
Without Gods is the first in a series of blogs the institute is hosting to challenge the traditional relationship between authors and readers, to learn how the network might more directly inform the usually solitary business of authorship. We are interested to see how a partial exposure of the writing process might affect the eventual finished book, and at the same time to gently undermine the notion that a book can ever be entirely finished. We invite you to read Without Gods, to spread the word, and to take part in this experiment.
Mitch Stephens, NYU professor, was here for lunch today. when Ben and I met with him about a month ago about the academic bloggers/public intellectuals project, Mitch mentioned he had just signed a contract with Carroll & Graf to write a book on the history of atheism. today’s lunch was to follow up a suggestion we made that he might consider starting a blog to parallel the research and writing of the book. i’m delighted to report that Mitch has enthusiastically taken up the idea. sometime in the next few weeks we’ll launch a new blog, tentatively called Only Sky (shortened from the lyric of john lennon’s Imagine “. . . Above us only sky”). it will be an experiment to see whether blogging can be useful to the process of writing a book. i expect Mitch will be thinking out loud and asking all sorts of interesting questions. i also think that readers will likely provide important insight as well as ask their own fascinating questions which will in turn suggest fruitful directions of inquiry. stay tuned.