Rob Walker died
in 2002. It was no surprise to me.
I first heard of him when I was in junior high in the early 1980s and going through a Beatles phase: Rob Walker's name comes up in George Harrison's 1980 autobiography, I Me Mine. In response to a question about "motor racing," George says: "I don't really know why I got into it, but it was long ago and half the people who were in it, who were racing then are in the background now. You know, older people like Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Rob Walker."
That was it, but it meant that "Rob Walker" appeared in the book's index, so I could tell my friends, in an adolescent goof, that I had known George Harrison, and then I could show them the index entry to prove it.
Anyway, in college, a professor once told me that he enjoyed Rob Walker's columns in some car magazine or other ? Rob Walker had a nice, easy writing style, this guy said. From time to time when I would see car magazines (I could never remember which one Rob Walker wrote for), I'd look for his pieces, but I never found one. It wasn't until learning of Rob Walker's death that I realized that the race-car driver and the magazine columnist were the same guy.
If I'd been smart, I would have changed my byline the day that professor told me about Rob Walker. Because in the age of personal branding, "Rob Walker" does not stand out. I wish my name were Increase, or Learned, or maybe Winko. I think it would help my career. In saying this, of course, I mean no offense to Rob Walker, the Australian poet; the trumpet player; the singer; the illustrator; the Neptunes' manager; the programmer; the software guy; the professor of international relations; or the director.
I don't have a particularly good transition from that to the rest of today's entry ? I've just wanted to do that riff on the many Rob Walkers, and this seemed like a good venue. But because last night's reading went so well, it's the last allusion that I'm going to make to the complexities of self-promotion.
Earlier I mentioned that one of the things I learned through Letters from New Orleans is that just because a book physically exists does not mean that it's finished. One example I gave was the effect of Hurricane Katrina in recasting much of what I'd written. There are other, less grim examples.
The book began its life online (although not as a blog ? which must be why it was overlooked for a Blooker award), and there are two online spin-offs that, for now anyway, remain alive. As with the essays in the book itself, which I always thought of, when I was writing them, as material that the commercial marketplace would not support, the question guiding both of these spin-offs is basically: What can I do online that I could not have done in print?
The first one is a Flickr project. A number of the photographs in the book were taken on Martin Luther King Blvd. in New Orleans, and I later used those same images to start a Flickr pool, with the idea of inviting anyone interested to add shots of MLK Blvds. (or Drives or Streets, etc.) from anywhere. There's a longer explanation of the project (acknowledging various precedents, etc.) here. I think of this as an experiment with open source journalism, but I don't have much else to say about it because, frankly, the results have been mixed, at best. Here is the pool.
The other experiment has been more satisfying. One of the essays in the book is about the song "St. James Infirmary," and, basically, my obsession with its fascinating and murky history. The original essay was distributed by email and posted on my site in June of 2003, and concluded with a plea for tips and feedback. To my surprise, I got lots of tips and feedback ? from people all over the world ? and updated the essay a couple of times. The most recent version is in the book; it explains all this and reiterates the request for comments or help. Now it's coming up on three years that the essay has been kicking around in one form or another, and people keep stumbling across it and writing to me. So a couple of months ago I started what I believe to be the world's only one-song blog.
What's satisfying about this to me is partly that I really don't think I could have gathered all this information and feedback without the Web ? but it's also that the information and feedback revolve around something (an old song) that has nothing whatsoever to do with "Internet culture." I've always been more interested in the Web as a tool than as an idea. I don't know how long either of these experiments will last, and perhaps ultimately they'll sort of run out of steam and fail. I don't really know. That's the point of experimenting, I guess.
About last night's reading: I basically couldn't be happier with how it went. The room was full and friendly, everyone was very nice, we sold some books. I don't know if a good time was had by all, but a good time was had by me. Thank you to everyone who came out, or helped spread the word in any way.
In particular, I'd like to abuse this space to thank the wily and indestructible Garrett County Press, for taking risks, for being truly independent, for always doing the right thing, and now, on top of it all, for making sure last night that there were enough potato pancakes and chopped liver for everybody. I'm lucky that of all the Rob Walkers that GC Press could have worked with, they chose me.