'Old Media' Critic Tries to Capture Blogs' Essence

Isn't an old-school paper book about blogs sort of self-defeating? Sarah Boxer, editor of Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, thinks not.

"I don't have a blogging bone in my body," the New York Times media critic admits to Madeleine Brand. "They are out there in a way that is phenomenally frightening to me."

And yet, she was so fascinated by the form that she spent months searching for quality entries. The journey took her to some strange, very angry places.

"I think it's sort of survival of the meanest," she says. "The fierceness, openness, nastiness. There's just a certain kind of humor that's there even when you take away the links and timeliness."

Her anthology of favorites tries to get to the essence of what a blog is, she says.

"It was kind of a challenge. I was wondering what about it is so hard to pin down."

She says she sort of figured it out in the end, without having to write a single revealing blog entry of her own.

The Big Book of Blogs

Are all blogs just scattered rantings and mundane diaries? Reporter and critic Sarah Boxer trawled the Web for solid examples of blog writing and assembled them in a book, Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION we're asking a cosmic question. If a tree falls in the blogosphere, does it make a sound, a sound that makes sense?

(Soundbite of various audio blogs)

INSKEEP: This week marks the 10th anniversary of the phrase Web blog. This is as good an excuse as we're going to get to pause and sample a fraction of the millions of blogs that are out there. We know that many of you don't read blogs, maybe even think they all sound like this.

Unidentified Woman #1: I know they say Nicole Kidman had some kind of plastic surgery or at least botox. But me, I believe it when she says she hasn't had anything done, at least not to her face.

Unidentified Woman #2: Anyway, Jacki(ph) is so stuck up ever since she got her first boyfriend. We're on our way home from school and I'm like, you want to come over?

Unidentified Man #1: And I'm going to put this paper in your mouth, right? But I think duct tape is really overrated. I mean, it has a practical value, but what about the other kinds of tape?

INSKEEP: So that's the blogosphere we think we know. But Renee Montagne met someone who found something more.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

I spoke to Sarah Boxer, a former reporter for the New York Times who spends a year at her computer trawling the Internet for blogs that were compelling enough to make the leap, get this, into a book, an anthology.

Ms. SARAH BOXER (Editor, "Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web"): I was very skeptical about the idea of putting blogs into a book. First of, bloggers love to do linking, putting in chunks of other people's text, video, these kind of things. So when you read a blog and if you can't have the links there, it's sort of like you're hearing one half of a conversation. The other problem is timeliness. A lot of the blogs that people know of are political blogs. And if you try to put this in a book, they spoil basically.

MONTAGNE: So Sarah Boxer looks for blog post that wouldn't go bad. What made the cut? A lot of good stories, anecdotes.

Ms. BOXER: These are stories that are telling of the time, but they are also things that will not spoil if you cannot remember what moment they're talking about.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of one that you think is especially good.

Ms. BOXER: Well, this is, I think, especially good. This is a blog called Midnight in Iraq. It's a marine in Fallujah. But the story is anything but heavy politics.

MONTAGNE: And again the blogger's name is Jeff Barnett, but here it's an actor who's reading the excerpt.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (Reading) The PX staff has the tendency to overestimate how much of a particular product they can sell. And sometimes it's just weird, like panties, lacy black women's panties. Underwear that looks too uncomfortable to pick up, much less wear in a combat zone. The PX has a rack full of these displayed strategically between the Under Armour and the corn chips. My first reaction was disbelief since their obvious intended use is outlawed in the combat zone. What do panties go for in the states? Hell, I don't know, but I'm guessing at least a dollar.

Ms. BOXER: This was the fun of doing a book is really discovering what is this thing called bloggy writing, or is there a thing called bloggy writing? Ones you removed the links and you removed the timeliness, it's just its own thing.

MONTAGNE: It's interesting to talk about the blog that's having a sort of literally quality and value. We recorded one blog that's in your anthology. It's called Old Hag. And the blogger's name is Lizzie Skurnick. Let's listen to her here for a moment reading part of a poem that she wrote.

Ms. LIZZIE SKURNICK (Blogger, Old Hag): This is a poem I posted on my blog during the wiretapping scandal. Since it's, a best, a minor sin to cock your ear and listen in, should we condemn the NSA for simply caring what we say? Think: Eavesdropping the global nation hardly counts as a vacation. For all the dish you get on whether Brit and Kev are done forever, there's teenage girls in a dispute if Dave is hot or merely cute. In fact, it's comfort - albeit cold - that someone's with us while on hold.

Ms. BOXER: This is one of the things that she does. She reviews often for the New York Times. She actually has a book of poetry. The thing that's interesting about her poetry is that it does have something of the Web. I mean, she mentions Brit and Kev. Later in the poem, she talks about Gitmoing spam fast in the news and out of the news references. It's poetry but it is also bloggy poetry.

MONTAGNE: One thing that are blogged also, though, illustrate is that people don't just use the blogosphere to launch their careers.

Ms. BOXER: Right.

MONTAGNE: In fact with her, the blogosphere is one more outlet as it is for many people.

Ms. BOXER: But I think that she did feel that she reached people that she would not have reached had she not been blogging. And it is interesting to me that even bloggers who professed to be kind of against the mainstream media really want to be sort of part of that. It's still something to go for.

MONTAGNE: Although one of the things that does standout in your anthology is that there are good stories out there that you would only find, probably, on the Web.

Ms. BOXER: Yes there is one here, a guy by the name of Raed Jarrar, and he is an Iraqi. He now lives in the states. And he had an amazing story that I don't think you would find anywhere else about a T-shirt.

MONTAGNE: And here he is reading from his own blog.

Mr. RAED JARRAR (Blogger): I went to JFK to catch my Jet Blue plane to California. Two men approached me. One of them Inspector Harris showed me his badge. He said people are feeling offended because of your T-shirt. I was wearing my T-shirt, which stated in both in Arabic and English we will not be silent, (Arabic spoken). I said I'm very sorry if I offended anyone. Isn't it my constitutional right to express myself in this way? Inspector Harris answered: You can't wear a T-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It's like wearing a T-shirt that reads I'm a robber. I'm going to a bank.

MONTAGNE: It would seem from these - just a couple of examples we've used that the blog might lend themselves to liberal or left wing in politics in a way that a talk radio has long lent itself to the right wing. But there are blogs and plenty of them that have a sort of strong right of center stance.

Ms. BOXER: Oh, there are lots of them, and they are some of the more prominent ones, and this is just my sense. But the left wing ones tend to be easier in a certain way to excerpt that they are longer, sort of, arguments and the right wing tends to have this kind of gotcha moments that, you know, there is one line that gets passed around and passed around until they get noticed by the mainstream media.

MONTAGNE: Are you now a convert? Do you have favorite blogs that you visit regularly?

Ms. BOXER: Yes, I would say I'm a convert. And I think that just the exercise of trying to get these things to fit in a book really makes you realize just how different it is to write for a blog. I mean, these people are uncensored. They really don't feel like they have anybody looking over their shoulder. They're just out there.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. BOXER: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Sarah Boxer is the editor of the new book "Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web."

INSKEEP: She spoke with our own Renee Montagne. Our conversations continue tomorrow when he hear how some bloggers are censored or do have people looking over their shoulder and what they do to get around it.

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In the Middle

Raed Jarrar

hide captionBlogger Raed Jarrar is an architect and political analyst.

Courtesy Raed Jarrar

Following is an entry from In the Middle, Raed Jarrar's blog and a bio of the blogger, as excerpted from Ultimate Blogs by Sarah Boxer.

Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006

Back from the Mideast

I just came back from a short trip to Jordan and Syria. The trip to Syria was so fast, but I managed to visit some Lebanese refugee camps. [ . . . ] On more than [one] occasion, I got shouted at because I live in the US.

[ . . . ] The trip to Jordan was more productive and organized. I managed to put together a couple of meetings with Iraqi parliamentarians representing the major groups in the parliament. One meeting was with two MPs, one representing the biggest Sunni group, and the other representing the biggest Shia group in the parliament. They gave the US delegation that accompanied me a strong and united message against the US presence in Iraq. It was a clear Sunni/Shia demand to end the occupation and set a timetable for withdrawing the US troops. [ . . . ]

I came back to DC for a day, then I took the bus to New York to watch Fear Up: Stories from Baghdad and Guantanamo, and participate in some discussions.

The next day, I went to JFK in the morning to catch my JetBlue plane to California. I reached terminal 6 at around 7:15 am, was issued a boarding pass, and checked all my bags in, and then walked to the security checkpoint. For the first time in my life, I was taken to a secondary search. My shoes were searched, and I was asked for my boarding pass and ID. After passing the security, I walked to check where gate 16 was, then I went to get something to eat. I got some cheese and grapes with some orange juice and I went back to gate 16 and sat down in the boarding area enjoying my breakfast and some sunshine.

At around 8:30, two men approached me while I was checking my phone. One of them asked me if I had a minute and he showed me his badge. I said: "sure." We walked some few steps and stood in front of the boarding counter where I found out that they were accompanied by another person, a woman from JetBlue.

One of the two men who approached me first, inspector Harris, asked for my ID card and boarding pass. I gave him my boarding pass and driver's license. He said "people are feeling offended because of your t-shirt." I looked at my t-shirt: I was wearing my shirt which states in both Arabic and English "we will not be silent." [ . . . ] I said "I am very sorry if I offended anyone, I didn't know that this t-shirt would be offensive." He asked me if I had any other t-shirts to put on, and I told him that I had checked in all of my bags and I asked him "why do you want me to take off my t-shirt? Isn't it my constitutional right to express myself in this way?" The second man in a greenish suit interfered and said "people here in the US don't understand these things about constitutional rights." So I answered him "I live in the US, and I understand it is my right to wear this t-shirt."

Then I once again asked the three of them: "How come you are asking me to change my t-shirt? Isn't this my constitutional right to wear it? I am ready to change it if you tell me why I should. Do you have an order against Arabic t-shirts? Is there such a law against Arabic script?" So inspector Harris answered "you can't wear a t-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a t-shirt that reads, 'I am a robber,' and going to a bank." I said, "but the message on my t-shirt is not offensive, it just says 'we will not be silent.' I got this t-shirt from Washington DC. There are more than a 1000 t-shirts printed with the same slogan. [ . . . ] It is printed in many other languages: Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, English, etc."

Inspector Harris said: "We can't make sure that your t-shirt means 'we will not be silent'; we don't have a translator. Maybe it means something else." I said: "But as you can see, the statement is in both Arabic and English." He said "maybe it is not the same message." So based on the fact that JetBlue doesn't have a translator, anything in Arabic is suspicious because maybe it'll mean something bad! Meanwhile, a third man walked in our direction. He stood with us without introducing himself, and he looked at inspector Harris's notes and asked him: "is that his information?" Inspector Harris answered "yes." The third man, Mr. Harmon, asked inspector Harris: "can I copy this information?" and inspector Harris said "yes, sure." Inspector Harris said: "You don't have to take off your t-shirt, just put it on inside-out." I refused to put on my shirt inside-out. So the woman interfered and said "let's reach a compromise. I will buy you a new t-shirt and you can put it on on top of this one." I said "I want to keep this t-shirt on." Both inspector Harris and Mr. Harmon said, "No, we can't let you get on that airplane with your t-shirt." I said "I am ready to put on another t-shirt if you tell me what is the law that requires such a thing. I want to talk to your supervisor." Inspector Harris said, "You don't have to talk to anyone. Many people called and complained about your t-shirt. JetBlue customers were calling before you reached the checkpoint, and customers called when you were waiting here in the boarding area."

It was then that I realized that my t-shirt was the reason why I had been taken to the secondary checking.

I asked the four people again to let me talk to any supervisor, and they refused.

The JetBlue woman was asking me again to end this problem by just putting on a new t-shirt, and I felt threatened by Mr. Harmon's remarks as in, "Let's end this the nice way." Taking in consideration what happens to other Arabs and Muslims in US airports, and realizing that I will miss my flight unless I covered the Arabic script on my t-shirt as I was told by the four agents, I asked the JetBlue woman to buy me a t-shirt and I said, "I don't want to miss my flight."

She asked, "what kind of t-shirts do you like? Should I get you an 'I heart New York' t-shirt?" So Mr. Harmon said, "No, we shouldn't ask him to go from one extreme to another." I asked Mr. Harmon why does he assume I hate New York if I had some Arabic script on my t-shirt, but he didn't answer.

The woman went away for 3 minutes, and she came back with a gray t-shirt reading "New York." I put the t-shirt on and removed the price tag. I told the four people who were involved in the conversation: "I feel very sad that my personal freedom was taken away like this. I grew up under authoritarian governments in the Middle East, and one of the reasons I chose to move to the US was that I don't want an officer to make me change my t-shirt. I will pursue this incident today

through a Constitutional rights organization, and I am sure we will meet soon." Everyone said okay and left, and I went back to my seat.

At 8:50 I was called again by a fourth young man, standing with the same JetBlue woman. He asked for my boarding pass, so I gave it to him, and stood in front of the boarding counter. I asked the woman: "Is everything okay?" She responded: "Yes, sure. We just have to change your seat." I said: "But I want this seat, that's why I chose it online 4 weeks ago." The fourth man said, "There is a lady with a toddler sitting there. We need the seat."

Then they re-issued me a small boarding pass for seat 24a, instead of seat 3a. They said that I can go to the airplane now. I was the first person who entered the airplane, and I was really annoyed about being assigned this seat in the back of the airplane too. It smelled like the bathrooms, which is why I had originally chosen a seat which would be far from that area.

It sucks to be an Arab/Muslim living in the US these days. When you go to the Middle East, you are a US tax-payer destroying people's houses with your money, and when you come back to the US, you are a suspected terrorist and plane hijacker. [ . . . ]

RAED JARRAR * IN THE MIDDLE

The first appearance of Raed Jarrar in the blogosphere was not as the author of a blog but rather as its intended audience. Back in 2002, an Iraqi man who called himself Salam Pax (a pseudonym made of the Arabic word salam and the Latin word pax, both meaning peace) started blogging about life and then war in Iraq. He called the blog Where is Raed? because his friend Raed Jarrar, who was in Jordan working on a master's degree in architecture, wasn't responding to his e-mails. Jarrar noticed and soon started blogging on Pax's site. In 2003 he struck out on his own with In the Middle, a blog of political analysis and news about Iraq.

A twenty-nine-year-old architect and political analyst based in Washington, D.C., Jarrar was born in Baghdad and has spent most of his life in Iraq. After the U.S. invasion, he became director of CIVIC Worldwide in Iraq, which he describes as the only door-to-door casualty survey. He also established an organization to facilitate reconstruction projects that would be carried out by local communities in Baghdad and the nine southern provinces. His master's thesis was about postwar reconstruction.

In 2005 he moved to California, where he translated and consulted for a project on Iraq's marshlands and worked with California Peace Action to urge Congress to outlaw permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. In Washington he has been active as director of global exchange for the Iraq Project, which tries to bridge the gap between Iraqi leaders and U.S. Congress members.

Jarrar writes about Iraq for Foreign Policy in Focus, a publication of the Institute for Policy Studies, and has been a talking head on CNN, CNNI, Al-Jazeera, Al-Alam, the BBC, and many radio stations, including member stations of Pacifica, BBC, NPR, CBC, CBS, and FOX.

Excerpted from Ultimate Blogs Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Boxer. Published by Vintage Books.

Old Hag

Lizzie Skurnick

hide captionLizzie Skurnick started her anonymous literary blog, Old Hag, in 2003.

Courtesy Lizzie Skurnick

Following is an entry from Old Hag, Lizzie Skurnick's blog and a bio of the blogger, as excerpted from Ultimate Blogs by Sarah Boxer.

Rootless Cosmopolitan

Following is an entry from Rootless Cosmopolitan, Tony Karon's blog and a bio of the blogger, as excerpted from Ultimate Blogs by Sarah Boxer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Free Mandela (From the Prison of Fantasy)!

Monday was Nelson Mandela's 87th birthday and on these shores I sometimes feel he's in need of rescuing, trapped in some pretty bizarre narratives that have nothing to do with his own story or politics. Full disclosure: I freely admit that Nelson Mandela is the only politician for whom I've ever voted; that I celebrate him as a moral giant of our age; and that I proclaimed him my leader (usually at the top of my tuneless voice, in badly sung Xhosa songs) during my decade in the liberation movement in South Africa. That may be why the "Mandela" I've encountered in so much American mythology is so unrecognizable. Herewith, the three most egregious versions:

Mythical Mandela #1: "Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela . . ."
How many times have [ . . . ] you heard that phrase to describe some politician, somewhere, opting for pacifism in the face of a nasty regime? Don't take it from me, try a google search on that exact phrase. I understand the compulsion to link figures of great moral authority, but this is a little misleading. Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist. When the Gandhi route of non-violent civil disobedience brought only violence from the state, Mandela declared, "The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices—submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom."

He played a leading role in setting up the ANC's guerrilla wing, and traveled abroad to gather support, even undergoing guerrilla training himself in Algeria, from the commanders of the FLN who had recently ejected the French colonials.

Mandela was no terrorist, however: Under his leadership, the movement's armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces, never white civilians or any other non-combatants. And most important, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.

In these beliefs he remained consistent and proud. Even as the mass non-violent opposition reasserted itself, under ANC guidance, in the 1980s, he reiterated its connection with the armed wing, writing in a smuggled message from prison that "between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed." (Of course it didn't ever work that way—the armed struggle was never particularly effective, and mass action combined with international sanctions did more to topple the regime.) [ . . . ]

Myth #2: The "Mandela Miracle"
Google Mandela and miracle together, and there are at least 86,000 citations. This idea has entered American shorthand as follows: South Africa would have exploded in a racial war, and white people would have been driven into the sea, had it not been for the "miraculous" generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, who supposedly restrained the vengeful hordes.

Oy, where to begin?

The assumption that black people would seek violent revenge for the violence they had suffered at the hands of white people is pretty racist. (Remember Gandhi's arch put-down when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilization: "That would be a fine idea," or words to that effect.)

But let's not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual's, strength of character. [ . . . ] [T]he ANC [ . . . ] was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership [ . . . ] whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people. It would be remiss of any historian to understate the role of the South African Communist Party in nurturing this culture. I've written some pretty nasty things about the SACP in the past, but nobody can deny that not only were they the first, and for a long time the only, organization in South Africa advocating black majority rule; inside the ANC they played the leading role in shaping the analysis and strategy based on non-racialism and drawing whites into the struggle against colonialstyle minority rule. [ . . . ]

And, paradoxical as it may sound, it was the Leninist realpolitik of the ANC's communist intellectuals that led the movement to embrace the path of a negotiated, compromise solution with negligible "rejectionist" backlash.

Of course communist discourse had a downside: I remember cringing when freed Robben Island prisoners would tell me things like "In Moscow, comrade, when you come out of the subway, there's just piles of fruit there, really good fruit, and it's just there for anyone to take, free, for everyone. . . ." And I nearly fell off my chair when reading a statement Mandela released to the media in Cape Town from prison late in 1989 proclaiming German reunification such a spectacularly bad idea that if released from prison, he would personally fly to Germany to try and stop it. Uh, let's just say he was a product of a different age, shall we?

But the broader point here is that it was not some epiphany on the part of Nelson Mandela that led South Africa to its inspiring outcome.

[ . . . ]

Myth #3: Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela, and Me—It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand
When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown in 1991, I laughed out loud. (And actually, when watching Spike Lee's Malcolm X movie at an ANC fund-raising premiere in Cape Town, I'll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final Spartacus scene, intoning, "I am Malcolm X." The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in the South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny.)

Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995 and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.

My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo. I should have known trouble was coming when the girlfriend said to me "So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?" I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free.

But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy—a Jew, to boot—had been in the ANC. "Mandela didn't work with white people," he insisted. Uh, actually, of the eight men on trial with Mandela in 1964, three were white (all of them Jewish, actually). [ . . . ] Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe. Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.

Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian, he informed us, from Ramallah, where he'd been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. "And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization," he said. "Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews."

And so it went on: the South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela's basic non-racialism to the hiphop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. [ . . . ]

TONY KARON * ROOTLESS COSMOPOLITAN

Tony Karon, a forty-six-year-old journalist from Cape Town, South Africa, has lived in New York since 1993. He is a senior editor at TIME.com, where he has worked since 1997, covering the Middle East and international issues. He writes op-ed pieces for the Israeli newspaper

Haaretz and did a stint at FOX News ("measured in months," he says, "I swear!").

After college he worked in South Africa as an editor in the "alternative" press and as an activist for the banned African National Congress. After Mandela was released, he gave up that work, explaining: "If you'd been French under occupation, you might well have joined the resistance, but that didn't mean you'd remain active in party politics after the Nazis were gone—that was how it was for many of my generation of South African activists." He then worked for a couple of

newspapers and did "a mad array of freelance gigs."

Karon began his first blog shortly after 9/11, writing mostly for friends. That blog evolved into Rootless Cosmopolitan, which covers not only the "war on terror" but also soccer, pop culture, and food. The name for the blog derives from Stalin's "euphemistic pejorative" for Jews in the 1940s, and Karon, "an African Jew with roots in Eastern Europe and before that France," says he now wears it as a "badge of honor."

"I'm not at all religious, and certainly no Zionist," he writes. "But I am proudly Jewish. . . . All of the great Jewish intellectual, philosophical, moral, and cultural exemplars I can think of were products not of a separate Jewish existence, but of the Diaspora . . . Maimonides or Spinoza; Marx or Freud; Einstein or Derrida; Kafka or Primo Levi; Serge Gainsbourg or Daniel Barenboim; Lenny Bruce or Bob Dylan."

Excerpted from Ultimate Blogs Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Boxer. Published by Vintage Books.

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