Friday, January 1, 2016

A Commonplace Blog: Annual Report for 2015

As each year draws to a close, I take a few moments to contemplate what I'm doing with this blog. For example, at the end of 2012, I explored how I view the role of my own opinions on this blog--and specifically why I tend to focus on facts and insights and arguments, with less emphasis on my own opinions. I wrote:
I am ever-mindful of the advice from the classic work on expository prose, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White (Third Edition, 1979, Section V, Rule 17):
"Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work."
I am fully aware that expressing concern about "the mark of egotism" while writing for social media in the 21st century marks me as a person out of step with my time.
At the tail-end of this year, I have been thinking of the blog in terms of an even older tradition called the "commonplace book." Here's an explanation of the term from an essay by Robert Darnton, "Extraordinary Commonplaces," that appeared in the New York Review of Books in the issue of December 21, 2000 (pp. 82-87). Darnton wrote:
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook: under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them bow to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copio, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modem England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modem readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modem Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
With due acknowledgement of the fact that this blog is focused only on my reading in economics and my thoughts about what I read, this seems to me a fair description of the Conversable Economist blog: copying pithy packages and adding observations; creating something that involves jumping in fits and starts through an article; breaking text into fragments and reassembling it in new patterns; a combination of reading and writing as part of a continuous effort to make sense of things; and all of this resulting in a combined work that is inevitably stamped with my personality.

I don't know this issue goes through the mind of other bloggers, but I do find myself occasionally wondering about whether this blog is just a pile of separated fragments, or whether parts of it cohere into a broader work. In Ralph Waldo Emerson's journals, there is a passage where he argues that a series of saved fragments can take on a greater value. Emerson wrote in 1834 (in an entry at the start of his journal XXV):
This Book is my Savings Bank. I grow richer because I have somewhere to deposit my earnings ; and fractions are worth more to me because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition.
Or for a more ornate description of the tension between putting down readings and reactions in a slapdash fashion that can  make my editor's soul wince when looking back at it, and yet still hoping that the writing can serve a broader function and coalesce into something more, consider the comments of Virginia Woolf in 1919 in looking back at entries in her diary (diary entry of April 20th, 1919, as reprinted in A Writer’s Diary):
“I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.”
As 2015 comes to a close, this blog is typically attracting roughly 2200-2800 pageviews per day. The pageviews, of course, don't count the 510 people who are signed up to receive posts by e-mail, or those who receive the blog via an RSS feed (for example, more than 1,000 people are subscribed to this blog on There are about 1,700 subscribers to my Twitter feed, which is almost always just the title of the latest blog entry and a link. Thanks to all my readers, but especially to the regulars who check in a few times each week or each month. Special added thanks go to those of you who use social media to recommend blog posts to others. Although a primary purpose of this commonplace blog is to help me keep track of what I read for my own purposes, with the vague hope that this stream of readings adds up to a broader thematic understanding of the economic aspects of our world, it wouldn't feel worth doing if I didn't have readers along for the ride.

For those interested in browsing through my various end-of-year musings from earlier years, here are the links: