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May 3, 2013
In A Pickle
On Tuesday, I read a good essay by Michael Bourne1 at The Millions, a book blog, arguing that the current state of information distribution requires that book reviewers abandon their news-oriented approach to reviewing and move toward an analytic mode. That is, reviewers should assume that potential consumers of a book can find out all the basic details about a book's author, its plot, its writing style, and whether people like it by going to Amazon and Goodreads and any number of other sites. So assuming, reviewers should, if they wish to retain relevance, not bother with these basic details in their reviews and should instead:
Many readers will recognize this dynamic playing out in other, cognate contexts as well. Perhaps you've pondered the place of the music critic in an era of streaming services like Spotify, when the constraints on how much music you can consume have been stripped down merely to the available hours you have in a day (as compared to needing money to purchase records and space to store them). Or you've noticed the rise of the episode recap in the television world that has supplanted, in terms of the major critical conversation, the style of review where the writer received screeners of the first two to four episodes of a new show and reviewed those as a block mostly to advise readers whether they should tune in. Many savvy TV fans have made up their minds whether to watch a show months before the pilot even airs because the showrunner created their favorite show five years ago or because their favorite actor is the lead or because the premise sounds intriguing. These fans want to engage on a level that is not provided by a reviewer writing what boils down to "the acting is good, the writing is solid, give this show a chance."
Or perhaps, in the baseball context, you've heard tell of the death and/or evolution of the game recap now that we have MLB.tv and Extra Innings and ESPN Gamecast and Yahoo! live box scores and we're all tracking how our fantasy guys are doing across the league more than we are the scores of the MLB games anyway. Who needs to read 1,000 words of blow-by-blow eight whole hours after the game ended? The baseball analogy to Bourne's piece, in case you didn't click over, isn't original material on my part: Bourne uses sports game recaps as his leading example:
I've even touched on this issue before, in a sense, though not as explicitly or clearly as Bourne does and, perhaps crucially, not in the critical context. In my review of a new biography of Hank Greenberg, I complained that the author had nothing to add to the mass of facts he had collected:
Facts are just facts, though, and a book is not a series of bullet points, recitations of research. It needs something more, something like thematic through-lines, a compelling character arc, authorial point-of-view, or scintillating prose fireworks. Without some extra element above the bare facts, what's the point of writing a new work rather than making a scrapbook of relevant newspaper clippings and transcripts of interviews with family and contemporaries?
Now, at the risk of letting these thoughts lead to exactly the kind of review Bourne argues is passe: Robert Weintraub's The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age, published on April 1st by Little, Brown, caused much the same reaction for me as the Greenberg biography did. Weintraub's book is better—better sentences, more interesting structure, more evocative of the era—but in the end it is a collection of 40 chapters comprising probably 150 or 200 anecdotes about and brief biographical sketches of players, managers, executives, and owners that does not coalesce into a larger point, a thesis, an argument.
I might have gone into the book with lower expectations on this front except that the introduction speaks in broad, even grand, terms about the importance of the year 1946 for American society. Japan's formal surrender ending World War II occurred just three months before 1946 dawned, and the cessation of that war both wrought and coincided with significant change back home: racism as an official policy was coming to be less and less acceptable, the economy had to transition back to producing civilian goods as wartime price controls and rationing were no longer in effect, and workers re-asserted power they had begun to claim before the war.3
All of this means that I fully welcomed a close examination of how baseball fit into America in 1946 and how the anxieties and difficulties and improvements in American society were reflected in baseball. What I got, however, was a sturdily written but loosely connected collection of nonfiction short stories that alluded and referred to these great themes but only occasionally expressly fit a given player's tale into that larger narrative.
That's the complaint, and it's a big one, but there is merit to what Weintraub produced, significant merit. Even though the book spends perhaps too much time with the Cardinals and Dodgers (who that year played in the first-ever playoff to decide who would reach the World Series, having finished the season tied for first) and Red Sox at the expense of lesser teams and personalities who are not already household names (Musial, Williams, DiMaggio, Durocher, Rickey), there is a lot of interesting, fresh material here for all but the buffest of baseball history buffs. I am not the buffest of buffs, so I was quite happy to read about Larry MacPhail's pathbreaking work on the business and stadium side of baseball4 or Rachel Robinson fitting into Montreal while Jackie played Triple-A ball for the Royals or Enos Slaughter not learning until he was already a professional that running flat-footed was sapping his speed.
You can see, at least for two of these three examples, how baseball and real-life stories of the time might fit neatly together or illuminate each other, how these baseball stories might fit some narrative about sport and culture and business and race and Canada. Hints at the possibility of such a narrative are strewn enticingly throughout the book, as Weintraub will mention a mineworkers' strike or the last reported lynching in America, but nothing beyond these hints emerges.
Still, there is such a sheer amount of information packed into the book that even without the work itself having a strong narrative thread, I found myself making my own connections, such as when Weintraub recounts a repainting job at Braves Field in Boston going wrong when inadequate time was given to let the paint dry—Bill Mullins told a similar story about the Seattle Pilots in a book I reviewed in this space three weeks ago, amplifying the sad-sack tale of the Pilots, who made the same stupid mistakes teams had made 30 years earlier.
And if nothing else, because it's baseball and because Weintraub clearly has a marvelous sense of humor, there is much levity in the proceedings as well, including a French baseball team's right fielder wearing a bathing suit and straw hat as his uniform, fans making pitching changes in Ebbets Field, and, perhaps more darkly comic, Branch Rickey arguing that anyone who opposed the reserve clause was displaying "avowed Communist tendencies."
Two conclusions, then:
Consumer report: If you like baseball history but are not deeply steeped in it such that a book along the lines described above will largely contain material that is either not new or not interesting to you, you will probably like The Victory Season and should support the creation of more baseball books by purchasing and reading said item as your resources, time and money, permit.
Essay: Creators of original material, like Weintraub's book or the Hank Greenberg biography mentioned above, should take heed of Michael Bourne's essay, though the lessons apply to a lesser degree. The material relied on in a historical book is not as easily available as Amazon reviews helpfully sorted and aggregated in various ways by the website, and thus Bourne's arguments about the direction of book reviewing cannot be fully applied to the writing of history. Still, newspaper archives are more available to us online than ever. Baseball's statistical data, including historical box scores, are absurdly easy to access. Even old, out-of-print books can be found via Google rather than filling out a request slip at the New York Public Library. Writers (and editors and publishers) ought to be trying harder than ever before to be sure that they are truly bringing something new and fresh into the world, that they are not merely aggregating and distilling and placing in order historical fact.