Under my byline

Denis the blessing

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 8 January 2011

OVERLEAF 87

September 1998 was a good month. That month, Google first went live. Already by the end of the year it had been praised by PC Magazine as having “an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results”. Also in September 1998, the Arts & Letters Daily website went live. ALDaily, too, was a near-instant hit.

Google quickly became as commonplace as furniture, as useful and almost as invisible. That was its success. ALDaily, however, I fell hopelessly in love with. Where Google was a search engine, ALDaily was a “found” engine, and it had an uncanny knack for returning extremely satisfying finds. I am proud that I started reading it in the old days when it was still at http://www.cybereditions.com/aldaily, long before it moved to its current home at http://www.aldaily.com. Today Google processes a billion searches a day, and ALDaily gets 3 million page views a month.

ALDaily, for those who do not know, is a Web aggregator. In three vertical columns it offers three new links a day, to a notable article, book review, and essay or opinion piece, respectively. Its focus encompasses the humanities, arts and politics; but it is also narrow, because it picks from the best. Today, for example, it links to an article in the London Review of Books about the resurgence of bedbugs, in the Washington Post on the history of ballet, and in the Economist‘s Intelligent Life magazine about our “abominable” habit of verbing nouns (“Friending, trending, even evidencing and statementing…”).

Google has an algorithm to do its searching; ALDaily had, until last month, Denis Dutton. Dutton was a philosophy professor with very wide interests. Born in California in 1944 to parents who put their savings into what became a well-liked local chain of bookstores (Dutton’s Books, now closed; some user reviews), as a young man he spent two years in India in the Peace Corps. He learned to play the sitar, and then played for his meals at Indian restaurants in LA. In the 1990s he ran an annual Bad Writing Contest to “honour” the writer of the most wilfully obscurantist academic prose of the year — that was very popular. (Here‘s a piece Dutton wrote about it for the Wall Street Journal.) Long before the present ebooks craze he started an e-publishing company, Cybereditions. In 1984 he moved all the way to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he taught at the University of Canterbury until a few days before his death of prostate cancer on December 28. There has been a worldwide flurry of obituaries.

In recent years Dutton largely outsourced the searching to his colleague Tran Huu Dung. But he continued to write most of the succinct yet succulent teasers for the articles ALDaily linked to. On the day of his death the New York Review of Books tweeted that “Denis Dutton was a master of the tweet long before Twitter existed.” It then linked to ALDaily’s 1998 archive, where one finds terrific teasers like “Television is indifferent to approval or love. It pursues its only goal with unblinking zeal: to be watched”; “Was Spinoza the most lovable of men, or an emotional cripple, arrogant, consumed with sexual jealousy, and fiercely misogynistic?”; and “Dreamland: it did produce UFOs, sent to us by a mysterious alien civilization — the Pentagon”. ALDaily will continue, and I pray it stays as sharp.

Dutton, via ALDaily, gave readers more than links. By putting quality, non-specialist writing in one place, he helped create connections and inspire thought and ideas. He helped generate and support a modern, Western, Anglo-centric, global intellectual and philosophic conversation. That sounds like puff prose, but ALDaily really did that. Now there are many aggregators, though none as brilliantly minimalist; Dutton said he based the design on an 18th-century broadsheet — meaning, all the news on one sheet of paper.

Well, what can we learn? 1. An annual bad corporate/marketing prose contest might be fun (think of the horrors of PowerPoint). 2. The able writers amongst us might be more economically valuable than they think. 3. How can we let the kind of global conversation that ALDaily represents take place without us? India needs a person like Dutton to create a platform like ALDaily, to help bring the stream of our writing and thinking out of its many deep ruts and onto a more productive crossroads. It boils down, however, to the person. We don’t have a Dutton.

(The portrait of Denis Dutton at the top of this page is by Steve Jurvetson, under a Creative Commons licence.)

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