Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge and has been blogging since April 2006 as one of two dozen blogs on a wide range of topics hosted by the Times Literary Supplement. A book based on her blog was published in the first week of this month, proof of the wide interest it has generated. For example, her post on 12 May this year, about whether her women-only and chapel-less college, Newnham, needed a new grace (or indeed one at all) generated 74 comments and features in both the local and national press.
Her blog, I thought, would surely have material on it relating to her life before 2006 as well as after it. I was wildly wrong. From a full scan of her posts this year and a cursory of the previous three I learned that her parents had divorced (in a post on 29 June about encouraging parents to come to degree ceremonies); that she used to suffer from nightmares about exams (in a post on 12 June about forgetting that she should be invigilating an exam); and that she had once been raped (in a post on 29 January 2007 entitled No sex please, we're drunk: rape ancient and modern
What is even more interesting is that she created links from her blog to articles she had written in The Guardian about the painful death of each of her parents and about the story of the rape incident.
Why write about such things in a newspaper and not on a blog? She suggests the answer to this in her post A blogger's life on 7 July 2006 when she discussed the pros and cons of blogging, saying of the latter "friends warned darkly about the perils of the public confessional. … And besides there was a sniff of dumbing down. What was worth saying in a mere 600 words or so?" The two newspaper articles were, indeed, respectively two and over three times as long.
Later in the same post she says "much of my life is either unbloggable or unblogworthy." The unbloggable includes all her interactions with her students who "would rightly not take it kindly if I discussed with you their exam performance, their essays or their individual career aspirations (and that forms a very big part of my day job)." The unblogworthy includes on the one hand all the minutiae of academic administration – dull to blog – and on the other all the excitement of scholarly writing – virtually impossible to blog.
On the pro side she is particularly excited by the ability to create links from her text to enable the reader immediately to see fuller text elsewhere online, making as it were dynamic footnotes. Thus I can enable my reader to go from here to her interesting remarks about the prurient nature of biographical research and from here to what she says about writing biographies of the ancients .
As a fellow blogger, but one with vastly less experience, I was interested to see how she referred to individuals. People, it seems, are only named if she has something favourable to say about them: if not, they remain anonymous. I was intrigued, though, that she occasionally does provide the reader with the means to strip the mask away. When writing Reviewing: the nastiness test she enables you to identify the bounder who vilified her and also to get the publication details of the offending review, without being in the slightest bit offensive. Her example comes for me at a fortunate time, since I am planning a post about being thwarted which I will now write without the asperity which I had considered.
So, although spending time reading A don's life today has not helped me with my term paper by getting positive evidence about making a blog into an autobiography, I have gained greatly in other ways. Thank you, Mary!