However, when I started to think about how to present my experience in book form, I quickly realised I still had a very long way to go. Writing the blog was one thing; but a project that people follow in 800-word chunks over the course of 366 days doesn’t automatically convert smoothly into a longer text that someone would want to sit down and read through in a matter of hours. I needed to find a way to make it work.
I’m not the first person to have faced this challenge. Since blogging became popular in the early 2000s, a number of internet projects have made the transition to the printed page. From works such as Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen and Miss South’s Slow Cooked to Nasrin Alavi’s We Are Iran, the ‘blook’ (or blog-turned-book) is a familiar 21st Century phenomenon.
For a few of these, the switch is relatively straightforward and the blook consists largely of the material that was originally posted online. When I first started work on mine, I envisaged that this would be the case. After all, I thought, the books I’d read were the focus of my original project so it seemed to make sense that my thoughts about them would make up most of the narrative.
This quickly led me into problems, however. For one thing – unlike works such as Alavi’s, where much of the original material was in Farsi and so off-limits to most English-language readers – the people I hoped would want to read my book already had free access to my reviews online. After so many book-lovers had gone to such lengths to follow and support my quest, it seemed rather churlish just to stitch together the things I’d already written and expect people to buy them.
There was also the problem of the different timeframes that blogs and books move in. Whereas a blog post is written in an hour or so and published as soon as it’s finished, a book takes shape over many months and is often released a year after the manuscript is completed. When I looked back over my blog posts – a number of which referenced news events from 2012, such as the Queen’s Jubilee and the #StopKony campaign – several of them already read like historical documents. Writing something that would still feel fresh a couple of years later required a different approach.
In addition, the brevity of the posts was limiting. Each piece was written to stand alone, and in them there wasn’t the room to develop the bigger arguments that I knew the book needed – ideas about cultural identity, translation, censorship and how stories can shape and change us.
In the end, much as it had been for the original project, the solution lay in people and books. By reading even more widely and talking in depth to many of those I encountered during my quest, I found the perspective I needed to weave together the diverse strands. I spoke to Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov about his escape from his homeland after the authorities ordered his arrest and heard from Burundian author Marie-Thérèse Toyi about how living through genocide shaped her work. From Hawaiian actor Daniel Kelin II, I discovered the challenges of collecting oral stories on the remote Marshall Islands, while Californian musician Eric Cyrs told me about how a chance encounter with a travelling dance company inspired him to study to become a West African storyteller or griot.
Hearing about how others came to reading and writing – often in the face of extreme political and social pressures – I discovered the way to reach back into my own history with books and bring experiences from my life to my reflections, alongside the stories of others, creating what I hope is a much more layered and richer narrative than the sum-total of my blog posts could ever be.
Of course, blogs have great value of their own too. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the latest high-profile person to take his reading online with his plan to share his thoughts on one title every two weeks in 2015. On the Facebook page for his project, A Year of Books he says that “books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today”. But the truth is that different media offer the possibility of different kinds of immersion. While blogs and a lot of other online platforms are ideal for the in-the-moment, blow-by-blow capturing of an experience, books provide the space to put those events in context and reflect more thoroughly on what they mean.
My book could not have happened without my blog, but it could not have worked with only my blog either. Realising that was what made all the difference.