Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Reader on Reading
by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press 308 pages

One of the pleasures associated with reading literature is reading about the literature one has read, and even better, about the great literature that one has not yet read and—melancholy fate—probably never will. But in this age when such reading is considered dorky as well as obsolete, a shining rationale is also welcome.

Like Alberto Manguel’s insightful The Library at Night (published by Yale in 2008) this book is a collection of thematically linked pieces: a bit autobiographical, but mostly about specific authors and books (Borges, Conrad, Dante, Pinocchio) as well as cultural and political topics illustrated by authors from the Bible and Homer to Che Guevara.

Another pleasure of this kind of book is the apt quote, as this from Jorge Luis Borges (who Manguel knew in Argentina): “To imagine the plot of a novel is delectable. To actually write it out is an exaggeration.” And this (also Borges): “I’ve always said that the lasting aim of literature is to display our destinies.”

There is variety to choose from, and some chapters are especially tantalizing ( Manguel may have a fascinating book on Cervantes either aborning or aborted.) There is also enough sheer brilliance to make this a book to keep and savor.

Each chapter is headed by a mischievous quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which pay off particularly in a late chapter, “At the Mad Hatter’s Table.” It begins: “As most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity.” Though he could not have foreseen it, Manguel’s reading of cultural politics implied in Carroll illuminates the current movement supposedly based on a different Tea Party. But he also notes that writing and reading are activities to lift the spirit, and perhaps the greatest human defense against the apocalyptic times.

The book ends with eloquent meditations on the meaning of reading itself. After confessing “As a child, I made no clear distinction between my own identity and that which books created for me,” he summarizes: “It may be that, of all the instruments we have invented to help us along the path of self-discovery, books are the most useful, the most practical, the most concrete. By lending words to our bewildering experience, books become compasses that emobdy the four cardinal points:mobility and stability, self-reflection and the gift of looking outward.”

Manguel then states something else that he’s so far implied: that reading can be a political act. It is not only pertinent as lived in time (he notes that he was reading of Don Quixote’s idealism during the political tumult of 1968), but as a perennial place to stand: “Reading at its best may lead to reflection and questioning, and reflection and questioning may lead to objection and change. That, in any society, is a dangerous enterprise.”

Reading provides us the power "to see with the eyes of others and speak with the tongues of the dead." "Reading is the ability to enter a text and explore it to one's fullest individual capabilities, repossessing it in the act of reinvention." Or as Emerson put it, when you are reading, "you are the book's book."

There is a chapter on wordplay, and the book's title is itself a pun. A Reader on Reading is autobiographical, with Manguel as the reader. But it is also a book of readings, often called a Reader. Manguel offers a chapter of adages on the ideal reader, such as "The Ideal Reader wishes to get to the end of the book and to know that the book will never end." "Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal." "The ideal reader is a novel's main character."

Friday, July 02, 2010

Bottom of the Ninth
by Michael Shapiro
Times Books

Major League baseball was the most popular national sport for a long time. A lot of factors went into changing that status, but Michael Shapiro makes a particular case for what happened in this “inside baseball” book.

According to Shapiro, 1960 was the year that baseball blew its opportunity to remain America’s dominant sport by subverting the ongoing attempt to create a third major league (the Continental League), where equally matched teams would compete with each other and share financial resources. Instead the National and American Leagues decided to add new teams (consisting of major league castoffs and minor leaguers that guaranteed losing seasons) while retaining the selfish every-team-for-itself finances that favored the rich teams in major markets.

At the same time, a new pro football league arose (the American Football League), founded on the Continental League model. It became a big success, and when merged into the National Football League, began football’s dominance.

I admit I started reading this book because the blurbs suggested that the Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series was the start of baseball’s decline. But that series was not only incredibly thrilling for young western Pennsylvania baseball fans like me, it was historically exciting: Bill Mazeroski’s homer remains the only home run to decide a World Series in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game.

It turns out that Shapiro meant only that this series was so exciting that it should have cemented baseball’s dominance for future generations. But it didn’t, and although Shapiro’s overall thesis seems leaky, he’s right about the plight of small market teams. The Pirates were reigning World Champions again in 1980 when the team’s General Manager described to me in an interview how the inability to compete financially made its decline all but inevitable. In fact they had one more excellent team in the early 90s (Barry Bonds’ last years in Pittsburgh) before beginning a record-setting string of consecutive losing seasons that’s still ongoing.

I really enjoyed the game-by-game description of the 1960 World Series, especially that remarkable seventh game. But the book is at least as much about the corporate insiders running the major leagues as about the players running the bases. So even though it covers an era I enthusiastically followed (enough to note that catcher Del Crandall’s name is repeatedly misspelled), it’s maybe a little too inside the baseball business for me. This book can still bring back memories of the days when every American kid’s summer sport was baseball--and when "inside baseball" was really about baseball.
[continued after photos]

The photo on the book's cover (also the top of these two, although a slightly different--maybe earlier shot) captures the Moment--Bill Mazeroski's homer in the bottom of the 9th--at Forbes Field in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. The photo was taken from high atop the Cathedral of Learning, the University of Pittsburgh, which was across Forbes Avenue from the ball park. Forbes Field was torn down, and the Pirates went with the Steelers to the North Side, to Three Rivers Stadium. Though that stadium is also gone now, the new football stadium and the new baseball park--one of the most beautiful in the country, meant to suggest the feeling of Forbes Field--are near where it once stood, on the North Side, just across the Allegheny River from downtown.

Where Forbes Field used to be, there is now a parking lot and a little park, and the Pitt Library. Home plate is still there, with a memorial to Maz, and part of the left field wall is also preserved, where Maz's homer went. There are some who say that leaving Oakland contributed to the falling Pirates fortunes. They were first and foremost an Oakland institution. But that's another factor in the decline of baseball: teams left their city neighborhoods as people moved to the suburbs, and baseball became a bigger business--with much bigger payrolls--even as it slipped down from the #1 sport, to #2 and now #3 in places that have an NBA basketball team or NHL hockey club.

About that 1960 Series: Shapiro tells it mostly from the Yankees point of view, focusing on Casey Stengel. So that added new stuff to what I knew. And I really valued the description of the seventh game. When the Pirates won the National League pennant in 1960, so many western Pennsylvania fans wanted to see the Series that the team held a kind of lottery for most of the tickets. Like everyone else, I sent in the money for two tickets. The Pirates randomly selected from those envelopes, and you either got two tickets to a game of their choice, or you got your money back. I was lucky, sort of. I got tickets, but to the sixth game.

For awhile it looked like there might not be a sixth game, but then the Pirates were actually ahead 3 games to 2 when they returned to Pittsburgh. For the first five games, the Pirates won low-scoring games by a run or two. The Yankees won high scoring games in which they scored a lot of runs. Unfortunately for me, the sixth game fell into the Yankee victory pattern. It was a miserable 10-0. I did get to see all those amazing players, though, from out in the left field bleachers: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and the other fabled Yankees as well as the Pirates I'd of course seen before.

The Series was played during the day then, and so for the seventh game I was back in school. It was a torturous afternoon, because some of our teachers (all nuns) allowed us to listen to the game on radio, but most did not. I vividly recall getting highlights whispered to me, courtesy of students sitting next to the open windows, listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods doing play by play on KDKA radio, drifting down from a classroom above. It was an incredibly dramatic back and forth game, that I never saw.

The school day ended with the score tied after eight innings. Most of the other students got on buses to go home. I lived close enough to walk, but instead I hurried up to the big classroom on the third floor, where I heard the football team was watching the game on television. I'd barely got into a seat when Mazeroski hit his home run. The room erupted. I heard later about the pandemonium on the buses as the play-by-play came over transistor radios. And Pittsburgh went nuts. In my first conversation with playwright August Wilson, he told me what it was like in the Hill District and in Oakland. Shapiro's account doesn't come close to capturing the joy as well as the frenzy. I also remember stories about commuters driving home, listening on the radio. There are a few long tunnels on the parkway, but once you drove in, radio reception was blocked. Afraid to risk it, cars pulled off to the side when the ninth inning started. They were rewarded. Horns resounding in the Squirrel Hill tunnel. It makes me smile just imagining it. How sweet it is! We had 'em all the way!