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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Take me Out: Baseball books

Friend LK who knows nothing about baseball will be going to Fenway Park for an event next month (my condolences) and wondered today if there were great books about baseball. Yes, and no. Practically every American writer is a baseball fan, or so it seems - something about the sports that, more than any other, requires close observation, has a long and mysterious history, involves a great deal of the imagination - after all, what is it to root for a baseball team over many years other than to follow a constantly unfolding drama or family saga, much like a Tolstoyan novel? - and many think that there must be great literary material in baseball, but the sad truth is that the facts suggest otherwise (maybe because most writers probably played right field). Some think Bang the Drum Slowly is a great novel and I don't know, I haven't read it, but if we make a litmus test that the novel should be beloved by both fans and by the indifferent. Would it really stand up? Last year's The Art of Fielding was a very good first novel and did capture something of the mood and spirit of college baseball, but the novel at the end good lost in an academic quagmire and was victim to its own ambitions - a good novel but not a great novel and not entirely a baseball novel, either. I never read Roth's The Great American Novel, and am put off altogether by the title. My nominee would be Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, one of the few that conveys the sense of how history lives in the heart and mind of every true baseball fan - baseball wears its past, its traditions, more than any other sport (perhaps in part because the statistics made cross-generation comparisons possible, even easy). The Natural was good if too dripping with meaning, The Thrill of the Grass was also good but is now inseparable from the movie (Field of Dreams), Prayer for Owen Meaney used baseball as a starting point but that's all. The best writing about baseball is definitely nonfiction - The Boys of Summer, for one; the must less well known A Playe for a Moment, by old friend John Hough is worth re-discovering. My favorite childhood book was the Roy Campanella autobio It's Good to Be Alive - don't know how well it would hold up today and don't intend to find out. And then there are the many in-season narratives, all of which began with the bespectacled Jim Bouton's The Long Season. I'm sure I'm leaving out many, but these come to my mind right away.

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