Before the Internet

Our college librarian had a blog, sort of. This was the late 1980s, so it was strictly analog. He called it the Comment Book. It was just about my favorite thing on campus.

The Comment Book was a large loose-leaf binder that sat on top of the card index. Inside, each page was divided by a crisp vertical line down the center. Each half of the page was labeled with some variation of “Your Comments” and “Jim’s Comments.” Jim’s side was always on the right (both as a symbol of his political perspective and to give him the last word on the page).

Anyone could write just about anything in the Comment Book. It served as a kind of community bulletin board where students and faculty alike posted invitations and reminders of upcoming events — lectures, study groups, basketball games, announcements of which band was playing when — and the pages of lined notebook paper were interspersed with fliers inserted into the CB via the three-hole punch sitting nearby.

But the real fun of the CB was the way it served as a kind of salon — a place to weigh in on and discuss and argue about whatever was on your mind. Jim was a masterful master of ceremonies — by turns charming, witty, whimsical or infuriating, whatever it took to keep a lively conversation flowing. That conversation sometimes took place between the commenters on the left side of the page, with Jim merely providing a running commentary of quips, mysting and scorekeeping off to the right. At other times, Jim would take on all challengers. He posted “links” to newspaper stories (analog links in the form of photocopied articles inserted into the binder) with the skilled blogger’s knack for provocation — spoiling for a fight over Calvinism or libertarianism or the necessity of America’s nuclear arsenal. These fights were always engaging and civil, but Jim didn’t make the Broderian error of confusing civility with dull timidity.

I loved the Comment Book. Like dozens of others, I would stop by the library two or three times a day to read the latest entries and to chime in with some of my own. It was there, in the pages of that book, that I earned the closest thing I’ve ever had to a nickname. In the course of our umpteenth argument about nuclear weapons (Jim was for ’em, I was agin’ ’em) he referred to me as “my lefty friend,” which evolved into “my friend lefty” and eventually just “Lefty.”

The name stuck. Lefty started writing op-eds for the campus newspaper. The pseudonym was liberating, allowing me to follow ideas to their logical, if outrageous, conclusions, writing wild words with the kind of crystalline moral clarity that comes from being 21 years old. Lefty even wrote a few sharply critical attacks on the agenda and personal character of our egomaniacal, do-nothing student government president. (In my other capacity at the paper — writing a formal column as student government president — I chose not to respond to such criticism.)

One of the last things Lefty wrote for the school paper was recycled from a post in the Comment Book. It was an unpolished, not-quite-coherent riff on the gospel’s call to self-denying generosity. “If there are eight people and seven cookies,” it began, going on to suggest that going without a cookie might be the Christian’s duty in such a situation. Consider the lilies and worry not what you shall eat or drink and if any man have two tunics and all that. The thing continued in that vein — generosity in the face of scarcity — broadening its scope until finally considering the global picture of billions of hungry people and millions of overfed Christians with all the cookies they could possibly want. I’d quote the whole thing here, but I don’t have a copy of it. Plus it wasn’t very good. I never planned on giving it a second thought.

Fast-forward five years, to a seminary class on Christian faith and economics. We’re reading, among other things, Amy L. Sherman’s Preferential Option: A Christian and Neoliberal Strategy for Latin America’s Poor, which argues for free-market reforms. Any suggestion of altruism — of the wealthy voluntarily contributing to help the less fortunate — is attacked in Sherman’s book as redistributionist and, somehow, therefore “statist.” The idea that Christians might choose to “live simply so that others might have more,” she writes, “makes many Christians receptive to a statist model of development.”

As an example of this “redistributive,” “statist” model, she could have cited the sacrificial, voluntary, personal generosity of Ron Sider’s call for a “graduated tithe” in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Or she could have cited pretty much any novel ever written by that noted Stalinist Charles Dickens. But Sherman chose, instead, to cite the example of:

… a poem that circulated in the urban ministry office where I volunteer. The poem begins by noting that if there are seven cookies and eight people …

My first reaction, reading that, was that it wasn’t a “poem” or anything like a poem. It wasn’t remotely poetical. And my second reaction, of course, was to take issue with the way that a call for voluntary, personal generosity was being mischaracterized as “statist.” (I was only beginning to realize that this was par for the course.)

But then I had my third reaction, which was to realize that something I had written in a loose-leaf Comment Book and in a campus newspaper with a total print run only in the hundreds had resurfaced, years later, as something that was “circulating” through the office of a nonprofit hundreds of miles away. What on earth? How did that happen?

Flash-forward again a few more years and I get a phone call from an old college friend. “Remember that cookie thing?” he asked. He’d just been to a conference in Colorado Springs where one of the presenters, a rep from one of the big evangelical sponsor-a-hungry-child groups had put the thing up as a slide on an overhead projector. I tracked the guy down. He’d gotten it from a colleague who had photocopied it out of a book — another book.

The damned cookie thing — this half-baked, slapdash Comment Book posting of Lefty’s — seemed to have taken on a life of its own. Before e-mail, before the Internet, it had gone viral.

I find that strangely inspiring and hopeful. We speak words or write them on paper or on the screen and we can never be sure who will hear them or read them or photocopy or forward them. You might write something in the comment section here on this D-list, off-brand blog and years from now some think-tank hack could be attacking it or some conference presenter could be including it as a PowerPoint slide intended to inspire. Cast your bread on the water and loaves and fishes and the kingdom is like a mustard seed and all that.

You never know.

P.S. Happy New Year!

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  • Lauren

    Do you have a job? Family? Friends? Your actions affect more than just you.
    Unless you mean to me, personally, in which case I reply: I don’t want to be running into the corpses of people who misprescribed their own medicine, and I don’t want to pay for the disposal of said corpses either.

    Oh, for goodness sake, I am not proposing to actually do any of those things. Though your concern for my employer is touching. :rolleyes:
    Put it another way. Some people enjoy a nice martini on a Friday evening, take a taxi home, and sleep it off the next morning. Some people have their martinis on a Tuesday, and then show up groggy and unproductive at work. Some skip the taxi, and plow into the side of an unmarked police car while running a red light. And some allow their young children to die while they drink themselves into a stupor. That’s a tragedy, but outlawing alchohol is neither a proportional nor an effective response.
    Tragedy happens. Death happens. I’m glad you have been fortunate enough to live a life free from the material evidence of untimely death, but it happens anyway. You cannot legislate mortality away.

  • Lauren: You’re right, of course. cjmr’s points remain, though, so I think we can still say recreational and prescription drugs require different treatment under the law.