Long ago I came to the conclusion that John McPhee has the best job in the world.
He gets paid to go out into the woods, take a walk around, find somebody who knows those woods like the back of their hand, ask them some questions, and come home and write about it. Sometimes the woods aren’t actual woods. They’re basketball courts or art museums or laboratories or the cargo holds and bridges of freighters or the cabs of eighteen-wheel trucks. But often, they’re woods.
I was never able to get that job for myself, not as a full-time career at any rate. But from time to time I have managed to get paid to do it, take a walk in the woods and come home and write about it. My woods have been the backstages of theaters, the broadcast booth of a baseball stadium, a recording studio, a zoo, a guitar maker’s studio. Most of the time they’ve been the inside of a lot of smart people’s heads.
One of the best things about having this blog is that I’ve been able to do it again, take a walk in the woods and come home and write about it. Again, the woods aren’t always actual woods. Sometimes they’ve been the cafe at Barnes and Noble or the counter at the hardware store or the line at the post office or the hallways of my kids’ schools. Sometimes they’re the contents of a book I’ve just read or they’re what I saw up on a screen or on a stage. Sometimes they’re actual woods. And sometimes I find the woods close to home. Sometimes they’re on Cape Cod or in New York City.
I haven’t been able to make a living at it, but still, I’m grateful I get to do it at all, take a walk in the woods and come home and write about.
Wait. I forgot to mention the most important part of the job.
I get to take a walk in the woods, come home and write about it, and people waiting who want to read what I write.
I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days because of what’s happened to Jonah Lehrer.
Lehrer is a brilliant young science writer who’s gotten caught plagiarizing himself for his blog at the New Yorker. He’s been cutting and pasting passages from work he’s published and posted elsewhere into his posts at the New Yorker without telling his readers---or his editors---when he does it.
Not what the New Yorker is paying him for.
It’s not Lehrer himself or the self-plagiarism that’s had me thinking. I routinely quote myself but I make it clear that I’m quoting and include a link to the post I’m quoting from. And of course I’ve revisited and rehashed ideas I’ve written about before. And I regularly re-post old posts, either because they’ve become relevant again or I’m feeling lazy, but I always make it clear that’s what I’m doing. But mainly every time I sit down to write a post, I sit down to write something new or at least to say something old in a new way. That’s the challenge. That’s the fun of it. That’s the point.
At least, I thought it was the point.
But according to Felix Salmon, an economics blogger of note, and deservedly so, writing, writing anything new or old, is not the point. Blogging, says Salmon, is not writing and Lehrer got himself into trouble by making the mistake of thinking that it is.
Blogging, according to Salmon, is linking. Linking to things other people have written.
There’s something like writing involved. You’re out to make your readers interested in reading what you’re linking to. This means you’ve got to give them the gist in an entertaining and lively fashion and that means you have to write. But it strikes me as a particular form of writing.
Now lots of bloggers---and this includes most of the best or most popular bloggers---do this. And it’s a good thing.
But maybe Salmon didn’t intend it, but I get the feeling he thinks that anything else is a waste of the blogger’s and the reader’s time.
And that’s what I’ve been thinking about.
I don’t do this to be useful.
I don’t write to be useful.
But should I?
Is that what I should be doing?
Like I said, the best thing about being Lance Mannion is that he gets to go out into to the woods, take a look around, ask some questions, and come home and write about it.
He’s only able to do it though because all of you are willing to read what he writes.
For which he’s very grateful.
Thank you all.
We’re off to visit Old Mother and Father Blonde today. We have a wedding to go to tomorrow but I’m sure that at some point over the weekend we’ll be able to get over to Valley Forge.
There are woods there, you know.
I’ll take a walk around and report back.
The Essential John McPhee: