Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
Those of you who've read this blog for a while know that during the summer I tend to pen the occasional post about baseball. Feel free to skip them if you like, but I just can't help myself. Now, on with it. In Chicago, I'm finding that the start of baseball season seems to awaken a collective joy across the city. Riding the El on Friday, I was startled by the conductor's gleeful announcement that the slowness of our train was due to the Cubs home opener. I also learned that the Cubs typically eschew night games at Wrigley Field because, essentially, night games would wake up the neighbors. Most modern stadiums are surrounded by moats of asphalt, but ancient Wrigley is nestled into a city block and surrounded by rowhouses and city traffic and streets lined with bars and diners. Driving north on Clark Street, the stadium explodes into view, surrounded on game day by throngs of fans. A whole section of the city turns into a clamoring carnival of baseball ferment. And then, a few blocks beyond, one returns to quiet streets lined with leafy trees and brick three flats. In the past few days I have noted the pleasure with which the Cubs fan declares that the season has returned. In my experience, they don't talk about the team's chances this year or the strength of the bullpen or anything pulled from the sports pages, they talk about how it feels to have baseball back. They tell me that it's so great to see people drinking beer in Cubs gear on their front porches and shouting "hey" to fans walking to the game. But mostly they sort of cock their heads back so as to gather in some springtime sun, still new enough to be a novelty. In Chicago, baseball doesn't just mean baseball, it means that the gloomy, icy, sunless winter is over. No more trudging through the ankle-deep snow in the pre-dawn darkness to the El, and no more returning by the same route - stepping in the same holes my feet made that morning - in darkness to a home whose clanging radiators provide a cozy warmth, which, over time, simply seems to be the temperature they have set for your prison cell. But, if you see Cubs fans marching through Wrigleyville, all that can be put to rest and forgotten until October, a whole baseball season away from now. There are some grizzled Chicago vets who insist to me that we're not out of the woods yet, that April chills and snows are not unheard of, but I ignore them because, well, baseball is here!(I should note that my already considerable happiness at the return of baseball season has been further enhanced by the book I'm reading right now, a collection of baseball writing by the incomparable Roger Angell called Game Time : A Baseball Companion)
As a sports-crazed child of 1980s New Jersey, I had relatively few options to extend my mania beyond the games themselves. My parents weren't cable subscribers, so there was no ESPN, no groaning Chris Berman puns. The Internet, with its microblogs and highlight gifs, was still a full decade away. What I had were sports segments on the six o’clock news (I was partial to CBS’s Warner Wolf, whose exclamations of “swish!” during basketball recaps passed for genuine excitement) and sportstalk radio, a still-nascent medium with a decidedly blue-collar feel. I also had newspapers. My father was a William S. Burroughs-level crossword-puzzle junkie, each morning heading to the newsstand to return with his daily fix: The Times, the Post, The Star-Ledger, and the New York Daily News. As he cast each aside following its puzzle's completion -- he never bothered to read anything beyond the crossword clues -- I would scurry forth, raccoon-like, to retrieve their precious sports sections. I would then spread them out on the dining-room table with my cereal and juice to look at the pictures, scan the scores, and be debriefed on possible trades. I would read about games that I had watched just 10 or 12 hours before, amazed by the fact that someone had written a story about it, often a dramatic one, and that the account now sat before me. It was a little bit of proof that what I had seen was real. Twenty-five years later, only scraps of that era have survived. Wolf, nearing 80, is still in broadcasting, but nightly recaps such as his have slid into obsolescence. One could say the same thing about those newspapers. Six years ago, my parents sold their house -- dining-room table and all -- and my father died of a heart attack two years after that. Up until the end, he still worked the daily puzzles, but he'd stopped buying newspapers, choosing instead to go online each morning and dutifully print them out. One constant, however, was my favorite newspaper writer: the Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica. He started there in 1977, and aside from two brief jumps to rival publications, he's been there ever since. Like anything that seems to last forever -- Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, The Simpsons — Lupica's longevity is comforting, even though I don't pay as much attention to him as I once did. Technologies may disrupt, houses may change hands, death may suddenly hit, but Lupica is eternal. Even though I had never heard him speak, when I read him as a kid, I could hear him talk to me. He was impassioned and skeptical, and he wrote in a conversational, inclusive way that made me feel welcome despite my age. I had generally experienced sports as serious adult pursuits -- grim and epic battles with John Facenda narration and the occasional leavening “swish” -- but there was a sort of youthful, buoyant joy to Lupica's style. When good things happened to a New York team, his pieces took on an appealing sepia tint, as if you were already reading history. Here’s a passage from his column the day after the Yankees’ win over the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series -- the team’s first championship in almost 20 years: Whether the next great New York team comes from basketball or football or hockey, we will compare that team to the Yankees of 1996. We will measure things against this October for a while...“The hardest game to win in sports is one more,” Pat Corrales, a Braves coach and an old baseball warrior, said before Game 6 last night. The Yankees won one more game last night, one more World Series. One more game to remember, from a baseball month no one around here will soon forget. One of those forever teams. When things went poorly in New York, he was relentless in his criticism, a self-appointed athletic ombudsman. His hit pieces -- in which he railed against various team owners, steroid cheats, and sundry other villains -- had a mounting, three-beers-deep quality that I later tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic as a sports columnist for my high school newspaper. Here’s a bit of a typical Lupica screed against the Knicks’ perpetual mismanagement: The coaches come and go. The general managers come and go. They still trade off the distant past, and make us appreciate a less distant basketball past at Madison Square Garden. It took things being this bad for this long to make us appreciate just how good we had it. World’s most famous arena. Famous for what now? Or this, amid a 2005 piece on the Yankees’ high-priced futility: [$1] billion spent over five years. No World Series won. Two hundred million and change on the '05 Yankees. Out in the first round. Four million in attendance, at least $50 million in the hole. There has always been the economy for the rest of baseball, and the Yankee economy. Yankee money and everybody else's. Maybe that is finally about to change. Steinbrenner still has the deepest pockets. But guess what? He doesn’t just want that new stadium because he loves his fans. It doesn’t matter which pocket it’s coming out of, nobody wants to lose money like this. Lupica not only made me want to become a writer; he made me want to be a persuasive and convincing one. He taught me the value of having a viewpoint and seeing it through. I still occasionally buy the Sunday Daily News, in no small part to read Lupica’s “Shooting From the Lip” column. As has become the case with newspapers in general, this is more out of habit than need -- but as habits go, sipping coffee over a Lupica article is a fairly pleasant one. His attitude and cadence haven’t changed in the past 30 years, and his columns allow me to feel, for a couple of minutes, that I'm still at my parents’ table -- that my dad is back there in his easy chair, frowning at a crossword puzzle. The illusion couldn't last forever. During a lull in a recent Mets broadcast, the announcers mentioned “layoffs at the Daily News” in a tone usually reserved for jumbo-jet tragedies. It was well-known that the paper was in dire straits, losing roughly $20 million a year, and trying, with an unsurprising lack of success, to find a buyer for itself. As all modern newspapers must, it had been cutting staff for years. But when I went to my phone to see who the latest casualties were, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Mike Lupica would not have his contract renewed when it expired at year's end. Others who I’d also read for years -- Bill Madden and Filip Bondy among them -- were being shown the door. “The News always used to be read back to front -- like the Torah,” the Post quoted an observer as saying. “It looks like they gave up the franchise.” It’s too dramatic to say that I felt gutted by the news, but it was in that territory. The Daily News without Lupica was, to me, the Lakers without Magic Johnson, the Stones without Mick Jagger. He was unquestionably its biggest star at a time when newspapers didn’t really have “stars.” He was Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success: a writer of wide influence, equally loathed and beloved. He was a holdover from an earlier era, a time when a columnist could claim celebrity -- and his contract’s non-renewal represented a severing of the present from two distinct and parallel pasts: newspapers’ and my own. And with a jarring lack of ceremony, that was apparently that. After nearly 40 years in the pages of the News, Lupica seems to be done. He hasn’t said much about his situation -- a few terse and cryptic comments to the press -- and the paper, on its way to bleeding out completely, has offered even less. His columns still appear, and will continue to, one assumes, until his contract does run out. All in all, a disappointing and feeble end. It’s tempting to say that there won’t be any more like him -- columnists whose opinions and craft make young readers want to become writers themselves. But that’s obviously untrue; if anything, there are more Lupicas now than ever. ESPN’s Grantland has a stable of them; so do Deadspin, SB Nation, and dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Lupica himself will likely wind up on one of these sites, carping about Eli Manning and the Knicks in his death-by-a-thousand-cuts way. But what’s also likely is that I won’t be reading him when he makes the jump. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy it or because I’ve outgrown him, but because I won't bother to seek him out. Excised from the paper, he'll just be one more voice rushing past in the Web's endlessly flowing river. Rather than hurrying alongside to catch his words, I'll let him careen on past. I’ll allow the Mike Lupica whom I read in the Daily News — like my parents’ house, my father, and probably, very soon, the News itself — to live on as its own sepia-toned memory. Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes.
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So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it's been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that's that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can't wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It's good stuff.
We all work very hard at The Millions. But writing about books, despite being, uh, serious business, is not necessarily life threatening. Blogging for the 24/7 news cycle is, apparently.Sticking with journalism's good-old "three is a trend" praxis and using three bloggers who suffered heart attacks, two of them fatal, the New York Times published a front-page story Sunday, highlighting the strains and risks of strenuous blogging for Web sites like TechCrunch, Gizmodo, and Gawker, among others.I am beginning to suspect that the Gray Lady is attracted to this hot young thing. A month ago on Sunday the paper published a story about politicos blogging from DC. In what read like a oh-look-at-my-fabulous-blogging-life article, the Times described life in assorted "flophouses" where 20-somethings all cohabitated and blogged together, having parties on Super Tuesday to celebrate - and, of course, write about - the primaries. OK, there's only one flophouse, but the assorted houses do exist.And while DC bloggers help shape the political landscape, their Wall Street cousins are said to be moving markets, according to this academic study. Tip of the day: following financial blogs and short selling stocks accordingly may make you a quick buck - not a bad deal in this economy.Alternatively, you can tune in to The Millions, where we shun heart attacks and continue to post at our leisurely - and hopefully satisfactory - pace.
If your Twitter or Facebook feed includes anyone who cares about American poetry, you've probably seen a link or 11 to Rita Dove's recent letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books (and Helen Vendler’s painfully terse reply). If not, here’s a quick rundown: The November 24 issue of the NYRB included Vendler's review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove. The anthologist responded with a letter calling Vendler to task, in particular, for explicit and implicit dismissals of poetry by black Americans. Vendler replied, in full, “I have written the review and I stand by it.” To understand what Dove objected to, you needn’t read any further than the opening paragraphs of Vendler’s review: Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations. Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology? Notably, Vendler’s list of America’s foremost 20th-century poets is entirely white -- a fact that becomes especially significant when set up against her subsequent suggestion that this legacy of greatness is being crowded out in part by “introducing more black poets.” Up to a point, it's worth going easy on Vendler. Like Dove, she had a job to do -- the same job, really: make a case for what was worth reading in 20th-century American poetry. Dove made hers, and the NYRB asked Vendler to evaluate it. And after those two paragraphs Vendler’s argument mostly shifts away from issues of race and into critiques that, accurate or not, have more to do with Vendler’s dislike of what she calls “accessibility;” her defensiveness about what Dove refers to as the “poetry establishment;” and what Vendler describes as Dove’s “breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments.” While any of these could be stand-ins for racial prejudice, I don’t believe they are. Instead, they feel like an uncomfortable mix of, on the one hand, Vendler’s legitimate arguments about selection and interpretation and, on the other, her fear that the poems she loves most won’t matter enough to others. But those first two paragraphs can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Dove rightly takes her to task for this, effectively unpacking the implications of, for example, dismissing minority writers as being of merely “sociological” interest; suggesting that such writers tend to be valued for their “representative themes,” whereas the major white writers Vendler lists are supposedly notable for their “style;” and asserting that they write poems because they “wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel.” (Vendler might argue that she didn’t mean any of these observations to be specific to minority writers, but she introduces all of them right after complaining that black writers are over-represented, and a critic who’s famous for her attention to detail should know that she’s setting up that reading of her remarks.) Dove also fairly marks the places where the shadow of such remarks can be discerned later on in the review. Ultimately, I think Vendler’s condescending talk about race and writing is driven by her defensiveness about her own tastes (and more about that in a bit), which of course does nothing to excuse it. But given that Dove and others have already effectively unpacked this most glaring aspect of the review -- and given that Vendler’s case seems far from unique -- it’s worth stopping to look at the assumptions that underpin most arguments against inclusiveness in art, including this one. Part of what leads Vendler astray is her belief in a kind of literary value that’s all noun and no verb -- that is, one that wants to define value without making room for the fact that many people do in fact value the very writing that, she says, is not, well... valuable. In the process, she, like many other critics (and not just of poetry), creates an oddly unpeopled universe -- or, at least, one that’s strangely devoid of living people. Vendler asks us to think of value in terms of a hypothetical and permanent future, one that will have unvarying and therefore conclusive (that is, correct) notions of what was good and bad in our writing. It’s an exasperating argument, since it asks us to defer to the critic’s mystical conjuring of our far off progeny, a population that will, of course, have the same values as the critic herself. But even if the critic is somehow right about what the academics of the 22nd century will value (and even if the 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries value the same things), it begs the question -- why should it matter? Our current canons are based on what a select group of current readers find useful, pleasurable, interesting, meaningful. Were readers in the 17th century wrong for sometimes finding pleasure in other places? Should they have been more concerned with what a Harvard professor might care about today? With some notable exceptions, taste is not a moral category. Yes, it makes a difference if we eat meat; and it matters, too, if our diets are full of sugar or salt. In different ways, it matters if we embrace art that enforces our prejudices, degrades others, or results from exploitation. The same is true if we choose to read in ways that inspire pettiness or abet us in living timid, unfulfilling, unimaginative lives. But more often than not, none of that is really at stake in these arguments. Just as some people will like poetry and some will like fiction, some sculpture, some movies, some wine -- some many things, some few -- there are countless ways to get to meaning through poems and just as many different experiences of meaning to arrive at. And almost all of them are worthwhile. In fact, we can enlarge ourselves by being more imaginative about value; it’s a way of learning about others that resembles the experience of art itself, an act or curiosity and creativity and engagement. Many critics seem to move in the opposite direction, letting in a sense that the appreciation of writing outside of their preferences somehow threatens the value of the poetry they want to champion. If page-counting is a necessary part of reviewing an anthology -- of unpacking its claims -- the treatment of artistic appreciation as a kind of zero-sum equation is not. There's a strange logic here, one that feels a little like the idea that gay marriages would threaten the sanctity of straight marriages (which is not to accuse any critics of homophobia -- just to note the ways in which a lack of imagination about other people's pleasures can turn into an unwarranted prejudice and a strangely militant attitude about the things others do and love.) Vendler's hardly alone in this. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself by defending the great tradition, as he imagines it, from the encroachment of all kinds of writing. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bloom actually moved to the vanguard of the cultural wars by releasing his own anthology of sorts -- The Western Canon -- which made headlines for selecting 26 essential authors and defending their pre-eminence against an army of straw-men and -women: feminists, cultural theorists, etc., a group he likes to refer to as “The School of Resentment.” He, too, has passed judgment of Dove’s anthologizing, in his case when he made the selections for a Best of the Best American Poetry that largely discarded the choices of the series’ first 10 editors, including Rita Dove, and instead came up with his own roster of works that “will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets.” It’s likely that some of the defensiveness that critics like Bloom feel comes from their awareness that their own selections may be subject to attack, their awareness that championing an all or mostly white or male roster of artists is going to leave them subject to charges of racism and sexism. But there’s a simple way around that: admit that the kind of writing you value is just one kind of potentially valuable writing. Keep in mind that, in trying to maintain the prerogatives and preferences of the establishment (quotation marks deliberately omitted), you’re trying to sustain a series of cultural traditions and institutions that have been hostile to women, blacks, and other minorities on grounds that have nothing to do with merit. Take seriously the ways in which others experience and uncover meaning at the same time you ask others to preserve space for the things you value most. And (hey, why not?) take a little bit of time to consider the possibility that female and non-white writers are already doing important work in that same vein -- and that maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you at first glance in part because you haven’t yet immersed yourself in a slightly different set of cultural experiences and associations. (On that last note, Vendler does eventually get around to praising both Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa, but it comes so late in her review that it doesn’t provide much counterweight, and her assertion that the “excellent contemporary poetry” of these two writers “needs no special defense” revives her claim that many other black writers are valuable only under the terms of some separate and lower standard.) The importance of this extends beyond racial inclusiveness. One of the most useful things a critic can do -- and one that Vendler herself has done at various points in her career -- is to open us up to new sources of pleasure and insight. In denying the value of so much that clearly does provide value for others (including, for me, the brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Vendler faintly praises for a “pioneering role” before expressing wild outrage at Dove’s claim that Brooks’ first book “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”), a critic works against our capacity for imagination. We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.) Too much criticism suggests that we must serve art -- a supposedly timeless art removed from the particulars of people immersed in culture and history. And yet the most enduring value of Shakespeare -- the favorite cudgel of literary culture warriors -- is his ongoing service to individual readers, his ability to bring them joy and inspiration, bring them a more vibrant connection to the language we all speak in our own ways, rich grief, and insight into people living very different lives. Why worry so much about any other writing that provides the same?
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My soon-to-be-father-in-law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and recently he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 80's. 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 writers, 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. 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, an economics professor at NYU. Ritter also happens to be a 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 grizzled veterans. The result is a book that is, I am now learning, cherished by aficionados of baseball literature, and since, I suppose, I must consider myself a member of this group, my copy should be arriving via post shortly.An AddendaI knew I had forgotten at least one of the books I read last year, and I think I forgot because I didn't actually read it; I listened to it. Thanks to a friend who gave me a copy, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker by James McManus was my driving companion for a week or so, which both doubled my reading output and made that much more tolerable the vast amount of time that I, like any Angeleno, must spend in his car.
Its laudatory impulses notwithstanding, Louis Menand's worthwhile essay in the current New Yorker on Mark McGurl's The Program Era - an account of the rise of the creative writing program - doesn't quite save the book from sounding depressing. For those with ambitions to write fiction, Menand offers a whirlwind tour of a sausage factory. Except that in this case you're not the guy who likes to eat sausage, but the guy (or gal) who raises the hogs. Or maybe you are the hog itself. Reading Menand reading McGurl, you get the very same sense of a vast, tentacular, and mildly deterministic academic-industrial complex you might get in... well, a creative writing program. Which speaks to the characteristic thoroughness of Menand's writing. And, presumably, of McGurl's book.Largely absent from Menand's account (and Mark Grief's review in Bookforum), however, is the question of money. Even for those who agree emphatically with Menand that "there is no 'craft of fiction' as such," the value of two or three years of subsidized writing time is hard to understate. Rilke had the Princess of Thurn and Taxis; we have AWP. And though the rise of the M.F.A. program may well exert a systemic pressure on the writer, it need not, as Menand is at pains to point out, vitiate the visionary. By far my favorite nugget in the Menand piece is his mention of two workshops filled with idiosyncratic talent:Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Wendell Berry taught by Wallace Stegner at StanfordJohn Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.I've also heard tell of a workshop that includedJhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davies, and Marshall Klimasewiski taught by our guest contributor (and National Book Award finalist) Joan Silber at Boston University.If any of you out there have taken, or know of, similarly stacked workshops, we'd be curious to hear about them, if only as a way of letting M.F.A. applicants cling to a little of the glamor McGurl and Menand have done the rest of us the great favor of dispelling. Somehow the prospect of participating in an aesthetic of "class-based self-consciousness" pales next to the thought of getting drunk with Richard Ford and ripping on Jay McInerney... and hasn't that always been (along with the financial assistance, of course) the most compelling reason to apply to a writing program?
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Not having really read anything that David Halberstam wrote, I cannot write a good-faith eulogy of the man, nor engage in anything deeper than a surface discussion of his books. But because what I have read about Halberstam has painted him as a great journalistic voice of 20th century America, and because I have recently been barking about journalists and their books, it is appropriate to acknowledge Halberstam's unfortunate death Monday with some choice words.Two aspects of Halberstam's written work resonate with me: his war correspondence and his interest in sports, specifically baseball. Halberstam wrote an acclaimed book about America's journey down the road to Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. This road was built by a few American power brokers and followed by many American GIs, and though we did finally find the off-ramp, the road we are on today offers similar views of an ugly countryside for those who have not fallen asleep at the back of the bus.On a more personal level, I have a vivid memory of being a young kid sitting at the foot of my parents' bed as my Dad read aloud from a book by David Halberstam called Summer of '49. A book about a different sort of journey, Summer of '49 chronicles the legendary pennant race that year between two little baseball teams: The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The reader will learn that Joe DiMaggio had a brother, Dominick, who could play ball (though for the Sox), that Ted Williams hit like a hawk-eyed lumberjack, and that this particular race for first place was arguably the greatest in the vaunted History Of Baseball - and also represented a coming of age for the game in post-WWII America.There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines in favor of the sports section, and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.David Halberstam will be recognized as a writer who occupied territory where these two cultural phenomena, sports and war - with seemingly endless parallel lines of history - could be said to intersect.
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