On the Usage of "On" in Titles

The literary antecedents of blogging are easy to identify. Montaigne was a proto-blogger, one as willing to explore the ethics of cannibalism as his own bowel movements. Orwell certainly qualifies, especially his As I Please columns in which he wrote about English cooking, good-bad books and the cultural rhetoric of penny postcards. I would also add MFK Fisher to this list, and Boswell's London Journal would have made a fascinating blog.

A good argument could be made that the golden age of proto-blogging occurred in the 19th century. One thinks of Lamb, Hunt, De Quincey on opium and certainly William Hazlitt, whose companionable essays on a variety of topics are still worth reading. Here, for example, are a few of the subjects he turned his attention toward in volume I of Table Talk:

On People With One Idea
On the Ignorance of the Learned
On Will-Making
On Vulgarity and Affectation
On Going on a Journey
On Great and Little Things
On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority
On the Fear of Death

This is to say nothing of his On the Pleasures of Hating, a blog post if I ever read one.  There is just something so wonderfully straightforward about the setting forth of one's take on this or that bit of nothingness. And, in effect, that's all a blog post really is: a momentary turning of one's attention on the minutia of some common or narrowly delimited realm of everyday life.  There's a woman whose blog I often read who writes exceptionally well about knitting.  Knitting, for heaven's sake. Another features objects found in used books (postcards, old shopping lists, lost mash notes), and still another features photographs and reflections on old motorcycles.

My own meager efforts could easily be reformatted into a series of essays entitled "On This" or "On That."  Take yesterday, for example. It furnished any number of possible Ons:

On Students Who Don't Show up for Advising Appointments
On Checking Out Books Last Checked Out by Dead Colleagues
On Whether it's Ever a Good Idea to Swear in a Classroom
On Sleeping in Your Office

All of these occurred yesterday.  Well, not sleeping in my office, but I did have a conversation with a colleague about a now retired professor who was discovered to be living in his office and had to be asked to move out.  The point is that blogging on the ephemera of the day has a proud tradition in literature.  It's all too easy to lampoon the self-absorbed blogger rambling on about nothing of importance.  Serious people get on with life, so the argument goes.  They have no time for the twaddle of most blog posts.  Hazlitt knew this sentiment.  In The Conversation of Authors, he wrote,
Happy is it, that the mass of mankind eat and drink, and sleep, and perform their several tasks, and do as they like without us -- caring nothing for our scribblings, our carpings and our quibbles; and moving on the same, in spite of our fine-spun distinctions, fantastic theories and lines of demarcation, which are like chalk-figures drawn on ballroom floors to be danced out before morning!
Most blogs posts--like most of those 19th Century essays on life's ephemera--are useless.  They don't contain much in the way of practical instruction or advice.  Even so, as Hazlitt also knew, they contain over and above such information "a stock of common sense and common feeling."  He writes,
It is to this common stock of ideas, spread over the surface, or striking its roots into the very centre of society, that the.. writer appeals, and not in vain; for he finds readers. It is of this finer essence of wisdom and humanity, "etherial mould, sky-tinctured," that books of the better sort are made. They contain the language of thought.
The best blogs are just that: the language of on-going thought danced out before morning.  Reading or writing one, of course, is not a very practical pastime, but neither is it entirely a waste of one's time.


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