When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
I wonder if Paul Kalanithi remembered, as he wrote this book, the childhood dream of the father of modern neuroscience. This was a Spanish anatomist called Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who, as a child, wanted to become an artist. “At eight or nine years old,” Ramón y Cajal wrote, “I had an irresistible mania for scribbling on paper, drawing ornaments in books…” The boy’s father discouraged such frivolity. Ramón y Cajal went to medical school, where he grew devoted to histology, the microscopic study of cells.
At that point in the 19th century, inferior microscopes, which failed to show the fine structure of the nervous system, had stalled neurological investigation. (The vague term “gray matter” is a product of this period — coined, one imagines, by exasperated scientists.) So it must have been with excitement that, in 1887, Ramón y Cajal learned about a staining technique, using silver nitrate, by which nerve cells finally revealed their intricate features. “A look was enough,” he wrote. “All was sharp as a sketch with Chinese ink.” He drew what he saw. His illustrations would lead to the discovery that the neuron was the basic unit of the nervous system.
The artist’s pencil advancing science — such is the intellectual traffic that might have intrigued Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was a neurosurgical resident at Stanford when, in his mid-30s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. While his peers fretted about careers, his life tilted toward a reckoning with mortality all the more ferocious for how, as a doctor, he had spied death in the corner of his eye. His own encounter with death contained his patients’, too. “I had pushed discharge over patient worries,” he remembers, critical now of his actions, “ignored patients’ pain when other demands pressed. The people whose suffering I saw, noted, and neatly packaged into various diagnoses, the significance of which I failed to recognize — they all returned, vengeful, angry, and inexorable.”
Death is one thing, and dying another. Dying might bring a series of humiliations and panics, time choking upon itself, or it might slyly resemble living. Kalanithi and his wife had a child, a daughter, while he grew increasingly sick. When his wife questioned his wish to become a father, asking if having to say goodbye to a baby wouldn’t make death more painful, he replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” Avoiding pain was never a priority for Kalanithi. Pain signalled love and meaning. In his professional life, Kalanithi continued to perform surgery, resting his aching back against the wall of the operating room, until, one day, he declined to schedule any more operations. It was time, he accepted, to discard plans for his future. Looking to his past, he wrote this book, typing with painful fingers soothed by silver-lined gloves.
Kalanithi died on March 9, 2015. The book he worked on in his final months — this memoir, When Breath Becomes Air — has achieved tremendous recognition as a moving narrative of a doctor’s dying. Rightly so. Unclasped, however, the book is also an argument for an intellectually rousing way to live. Why have we not seen, in widespread and admiring coverage of the book, engagement with the ideas Kalanithi held dear? Might not such an engagement honour the doctor’s life?
Within the mortal man — never a smoker, yet whose lungs grew dense with tumors — there agitated a rare intellect that continued to consider questions of science and art even while life’s end alighted nearby.
Kalanithi argues that the great divide between science and literature is false.
As a teenager with literary aspirations in Kingman, Ariz., Kalanithi read what sounds like an awful book. Still, Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S., loaned him by a girlfriend, offered the astounding realization that the mind was simply a function of the brain. “Of course, it must be true,” he writes. “What were our brains doing, otherwise?” The revelation turned his mind to neuroscience. At Stanford, he added, to his list of literature classes, courses in biology.
Though Kalanithi went on to complete graduate studies in English literature, ever present on his mind were the physiological systems, sturdy and fallible, that undergirded meaning. He writes, “There must be a way…that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.”
(What does he do by referring to languages rather than fields? Well, even while admitting how the humanities are positioned against the sciences, he planes smooth the friction of their edges. This might be to the credit of the philosopher Richard Rorty, under whose tutelage the young Kalanithi began to see academic disciplines not as separate regions but separate vocabularies. When we see sociology and chemistry as vocabularies, we perceive that they are methods, not subjects, of investigation. Under unified examination across literature, the humanities, and the hard sciences: consciousness, living, the world.)
Kalanithi continued to grapple with the opposition between science and literature, and to live, in his life, with commitment to each. He worked his instruments — blades, electrodes — into bodily interiors as unfamiliar to his patients as a foreign country. Yet these interiors were the matter of which their personhood was composed. In one operation, Kalanithi placed an electrode nine centimeters deep in a patient’s brain to treat a Parkinson’s tremor. The patient protested, “I feel…overwhelmingly sad.”
“Current off!” said Kalanithi. And the patient felt better.
At the same time, faced with cases where surgical instruments could do little, Kalanithi drew on words to comfort patients. More important for him than saving lives — in the end, everybody dies — was the task of bringing patients and family members to an understanding of illness with which they might make peace. How else to do this but by speaking, and listening? By asking us, in this book, to consider how a life in medicine is essentially composed of — not merely ornamented with — the light and shelter of language, Kalanithi foregrounds one of the ways in which literature and science are continuous. We encounter both through the medium of language.
It is difficult, here, not to think about the language of this book, both gentle and relentless, retrieved and arranged not only by Paul Kalanithi but also by his wife. Lucy Kalanithi took on the work of gathering his words from e-mails and other documents to complete the book after he was gone. In a moving epilogue, she shares her husband’s final moments. A machine helped him breathe in a hospital bed — he’d stood over this very bed as a doctor — while his daughter, too young to be grave, played atop his prone body.
As a younger man, Kalanithi had turned to medicine as a way to find the truth — perplexing, knotty — of human experience. Within the hospital he had found it rewarding to confront the persistent irresolution of life. “Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life?” he writes. “Your right hand’s function to stop seizures?” He had felt then that true experience of mortality and suffering came not from text but from immersion in the world.
Diagnosed with a serious illness of his own, however, the doctor found that he needed literary translation of his experiences. When scientific studies and survival statistics offered little, he turned to books: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf. He read memoirs by cancer patients. “It was literature,” he writes, “that brought me back to life during this time.”
Throughout When Breath Becomes Air, which is, true, a moving memoir of a man’s dying, but very much more than that, Kalanithi directs us to consider the braiding of science and literature. Kalanithi might have grasped, more intuitively than many, how meaning originates both in a book that moves us, and in an electrochemical operation in the anterior insula.
Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of dendritic branches and axons, an artist’s hand tracing scientific truth, remain. The representations are arboreal. They are beautiful. Kalanithi might have asked: What do we do when we call a neuron beautiful? Aesthetic appraisal expands the proper place of the nerve cell. The cell crosses the boundaries of scientific study, and submits itself to humanistic consideration.
What we come away with is not just a sense of science and literature’s abutment, but something greater. Shining a beam on the beauty of a neuron asks that we consider not just neuron but also beauty. Isn’t it true that the humanistic notion of beauty is then allowed access to the laboratory, and to the clinician’s office? Such visitation might have pleased Paul Kalanithi — neurosurgeon, reader, and writer. For in his life, as in few others, the disciplines appeared, their hostilities eased, to show themselves as forms of the same revelation.
My father in law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and several years ago he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 1980s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite essayists, New Yorker staffer and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell.The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor, but when I listened to the tapes, I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, a former economics professor at NYU who died in 2004. Ritter was also a big baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years, Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s oldest living veterans, men who played in the decades leading up to and after World War I. The result, first published in 1966 and updated and expanded in 1984, is among the most cherished baseball books around.With the baseball season hitting its sweet spot, I cracked the spine of my tattered copy of Ritter’s compilation, and what I found within was a look into a lost period of time – before radio, before TV, and before even the prevalence of still cameras – brimming with color about the game’s rough beginnings as America’s national pastime.To give just a sample of the gems contained within the Glory of Their Times, this is what I learned reading Fred “Snow” Snodgrass’ chapter, a representative sample of the sorts of details in the book that are sure to amaze any fan of today’s game:Christy Mathewson “never pitched on Sunday, or even dressed in uniform,” but “he made a good part of his expenses every year playing poker.”Snodgrass wore a baggy uniform to try to increase the chances of getting hit by pitches, and, failing that, he would dive for the ground on an inside pitch and pinch his arm to raise a welt so he could show the ump where he got “beaned.”There was more than one deaf and dumb ballplayer during this era, and, judging by this book, they were all nicknamed “Dummy.” Dummy Taylor, who played on the Giants with Snodgrass, “took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” and consequently everyone on the team learned sign language.A mysterious man named Charles Victory Faust emerged from the stands before a game in 1911 and told the Giants that a fortune teller had told him that if he pitched for the team, they would win the pennant. Superstitious manager (and baseball legend) John McGraw took Faust on the road with the team, and “every day from that day on, Charles Victory Faust was in uniform and he warmed up sincerely to pitch that game.” Of course, he never actually pitched, but the Giants did win the pennant in 1911. Faust joined them again in 1912, and again the Giants won the pennant. By 1913, Faust had become a fan favorite and McGraw let Faust come in and pitch an inning, much to the fans’ delight. Needless to say, the Giants won the pennant again in 1913.In 1908 Fred Merkle lost the pennant for the Giants because of a famous, “bonehead” play. He was on first and Moose McCormick on third in the bottom half of the ninth inning in a 1-1 ballgame against the Cubs in the last week of the season. Al Bridwell hit a single to center and McCormick scored from third. The fans rushed the field and Merkle sprinted to the clubhouse to avoid the madness – without stepping on second. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (of the famous Tinkers, Evers, Chance infield) noticed this, found the ball in the crowd, got in a tussle with the Giants third base coach, tagged second base for the force out, and then convinced the umps to come back out onto the field to reconsider the play. The umps overturned the win, ruling in the Cubs favor.There was a rumor that as a nervous habit, Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski, “always carried some bologna in his back pocket and chewed on that bologna throughout the game.”In 1914, the Boston Braves went from last place on July 4th to contending for the pennant by season’s end. Interest in the team was so great that “they put ropes up in the outfield and thousands of people were sitting and standing and standing behind the ropes, right on the playing field.”Snodgrass, playing the outfield, got into a shouting match with the Boston fans, and the incensed mayor of Boston got out of his box seat and marched onto the field and demanded that the umps remove Snodgrass from the game.There is a sense that the modern game has lost much of its charm, that it is all spectacle. The game 100 years ago was certainly charming, but, as The Glory of Their Times makes clear, it was perhaps more the spectacle back then, a game of colorful characters and nicknames, brawls and backroom dealings, and fights over money with capricious owners. Some things just don’t change. It’s also true that for a game that we seemingly know so much about, the book shows just how little we know about professional baseball’s formative days.Ritter’s amazing chronicle of the early years of baseball is essential for anyone with a deep interest in the game.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a certain pattern for whenever Jonathan Safran Foer or his writing come up in conversation. First, I admit that I’ve read all of his books and liked them. Second, I provide the caveat that I was a teenager when read them and haven’t looked at them since. Third, I say that I still stand by Eating Animals and find it to be an interesting piece of literary journalism, but that, of course, I no longer have a high opinion of his fiction. Much of the literary community seems to feel the same way, if they were ever on his side in the first place.
Cursory research indicates that even at the beginning of his career he was a polarizing figure, winning awards and making end-of-the-years lists alongside middling reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This time around, it seems a little more universal. Here I Am received negative reviews from The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and many other prominent outlets. Is the book that much worse than his others? Or are we just different?
My first encounter with Foer’s work was in an English class my junior year of high school. After reading many of the canonical American works — Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, etc. — we closed out the year with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
The book is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father passed away in the September 11th terrorist attacks. I was around that age in 2001 and had similar youthful difficulty making sense of what happened. Unlike much of the other work that I had read in English classes up to that point, I felt like I really understood what it was trying to do. The novel was also built on a series of formal techniques that I had not seen before. He dispersed letters from grandparents throughout the narrative and used photographs in contexts that seemed unconventional. These elements created the illusion of complexity, which dazzled me at the time.
The summer after this class, I read Everything Is Illuminated. In it, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer sets out to Ukraine to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it switches between two storylines, and just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it resonated with me deeply. I had never read anything else like it.
In the years since this, I have come to think about these novels as sentimental and emotionally manipulative works. It does not take a particularly good writer to make the story of Oskar Schell an emotionally resonant one. The same goes for the story of (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer in his first novel. Centering books around flashpoints of international trauma is a quick way to the heart of a reader, and there is something about the way he does it that does not feel earned.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, uses 9/11 as a prop to make its narrative heavier and more believable. His father could have died any other way, and he still could have found the envelope with the word “Black” on the front, and he still could have gone on his adventure. Perhaps, outside the specter of international trauma, it would be unbelievable that all these strangers are willing to speak with this child, but it is unbelievable within the specter of international trauma, anyway. In fact, the collective trauma has nothing to do with why people are so open to him, because in the end the reader learns that it was his mother pulling strings for him the whole time that made it possible.
Similarly, Everything is Illuminated relies heavily on the fictionalized history of the real town of Trochenbord, an exclusively Jewish shtetl located in Poland before the Nazis and the Soviets invaded during World War II. Almost all of the residents were murdered before the Holocaust ended. But replacing the real history with an imagined one turns a town that experienced tragedy into a device that coerces sympathy from the reader. The book takes the name and weight but leaves the substance behind, repurposing real-world suffering into a gimmick.
Still, I couldn’t deny that I found his books deeply moving, and if art is deeply moving, is it possible that it failed? If the impact is there, does it matter whether the writer “earned it” or not? They were gimmicks and tricks and manipulative, yes, but does it matter that they work?
It has been six years since I read his fiction, and it has been 11 years since he has published any. I was curious to see how his writing has changed over the years, as my perception of his work also changed. To bridge the gap between perception and reality, I read his new book.
Here I Am is a much more straightforward family novel than his prior two. The three central conflicts are also basically familial: Jacob and Julia, middle-aged parents of three, are spiraling toward divorce. Sam, their eldest, is 13 but does not want to have his bar mitzvah. Isaac, the great-grandfather, is deciding whether he wants to kill himself or be moved to a nursing home. These three conflicts are done well, or at least well enough.
Foer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters.
However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable. Once, she asks Jacob to stare at her vagina in order to bring her to orgasm, which works. Another time, she masturbates with a doorknob she got from a hardware store. These moments are predictably unconvincing. As if to prove that his sexual misunderstanding is not sexist, he also devotes an enormous amount of page space to men thinking about their penises and talking about them with other men. These also fail to appear believably on the page.
The major events of the book are similarly hard to believe. About 275 pages into the book, there is a major earthquake in the Middle East, causing devastation in Israel, Jordan, and other surrounding countries. This leads to a series of events that make sense if you squint and are maybe a little drunk, including a total and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from occupied territories and the unification of Jordan and Saudi Arabia into Transarabia. All of this leads to pretty much every country in the region declaring war on Israel.
The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how “manlier” men see him.
And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets. It is, in a lot of ways, exactly the issue I started to see in his work as I grew up a little and read a lot more. The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting.
Still, I can’t avoid the way I felt at the end. Once the utter bullshit of the “war” falls away, once we are back with the family, the ending works. It is sad, and it made me feel sad. In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it.
Foer is the writer I thought he was. I have a hard time saying the book failed. Maybe Foer’s project is bad, or too sentimental. But if he was trying to get me to feel something, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.