Adonal Foyle, the former basketball standout at Colgate who has had a long career with the Golden State Warriors, has an impressive Web site that includes his very own book club. The club’s current pick, The Da Vinci Code isn’t terribly inspired, but I’m nonetheless impressed that an NBA star is broadcasting his love of reading. Note as well Foyle’s “Top 10 Books” which includes an ample mix of basketball books and political non-fiction with a leftward-leaning bent.
I usually listen to the BBC World Service when I listen to radio online, but Millions contributor Andrew recently told me about an excellent programme (as they say) on BBC4. “In Our Time” is hosted by Melvyn Bragg who, each week, is joined by three guests as he explores “the history of ideas.” To give an idea of the varied topics the program touches upon, the most recent show was about Samuel Johnson, 18th century author of Lives of the Poets among many other books (here’s his greatest hits), and “England ‘s most famous and well connected man of letters,” while next week’s show is on asteroids. All the old shows are archived and organized by subject.
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.
As any student of the history of the English language – or of Walter Scott – knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.”Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.””And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?””Pork,” answered the swine-herd.”I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?””It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy – as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling – too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence – bouef, mouton – the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon – all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.
Like many American youths, I spent a number of years toiling pallidly in middle and high school French, the end result of which was being able to identify the opening strains of “La Marseillaise,” being aware of the mnemonic device “Dr. & Mrs. Vandertramp,” being able to inaccurately recite a poem by Jacques Prevert, and being able to conduct one halting conversation with a man in a bar, the highlight of which occurred when I boldly spoke of jus d’orange. I also remember vividly the mid-century expression for peeing the bed, courtesy of the oft-viewed classroom film Au Revoir les Enfants.
I could probably struggle through a French article about cats, written for children, but it would not occur to me to say that I am a French speaker. The decisive moment never came when I chose to say to myself and the world: “I speak French,” and by thus saying willed it so. You must make your linguistic statement of faith and mean it.
Through a series of happy accidents, I began learning Turkish when I was 21, first haphazardly, then in earnest, then not at all, then all the time, and now once a week for a prescribed number of hours.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I cannot speak Turkish the way that millions of people from around the world speak uncannily beautiful and idiomatic English. But I made my statement of faith and I’m sticking to it. I ride to school and whisper words like “threshold,” “doomsday,” and “willow tree.” I stop in the middle of sentences and turn red and start again.
Like many people who begin learning a language in the country where it is spoken, until lately I was in the position of knowing many breathtaking and largely unsayable obscenities, but could not read a book or newspaper.
Reading is not like speaking. You cannot look at a page and will yourself to understand, the way you can open your mouth and say nonsense and hope that someone kindly will do the work of comprehension. Illiteracy is terrifying; semi-literacy is agonizing. I knew Turkish words and grammar (which, viewed from English, is approximately backwards), but not how they went together on the page. I would start a paragraph and soon, my eyes would begin skipping across the paragraph at their accustomed speedy clip, apprehending nothing.
I bought Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar (Snow) four years ago, when I had just left Turkey and felt myself, in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, a competent speaker. Confidence is important. A good way to feel optimistic is to acquire what Benjamin Franklin, the randy goat, called a sleeping dictionary. In Turkish there is an expression which communicates the same thing, an arch pun on dil, which means both “language” and “tongue.”
Unfortunately, most flings in foreign lands do not equip the besotted with the skills required for reading Nobel novels. As I have said before, I reached page 16 of Kar, which is actually page 8, by performing a very painful and ill-advised word-for-word transcription on the book’s actual pages, thereby ensuring that I would never be able to return to and read the opening chapter, or, for that matter, my own inaccurate translation. The pages, thus defaced, resemble something out of Paul Auster, or Pamuk at his most post-modern.
During my summer reunion with this elegant language, I took a class with a very patient professor who slowly coaxed us through excerpts of early republican stories, poems, and a Vikipedi article on jaguars (beneklerle kaplıdır–“they are covered with spots”).
Setting aside the dictionary I bought in my first week in Turkey, a tiny yellow Langenscheidt, the inside of which is coated with an archaeological film of loose tobacco, I obtained a big-league dictionary. A grown-up, non-smoking dictionary, which weighs 10 pounds and has words I don’t know in English, like “eryngo” (çakırdiken), and “schreinerize” (ipek efekti vermek), and “helve” (sap). It also includes a fair selection of unsayable things, which are important to know. I feel very secure with this dictionary, although I keep the yellow one in my purse, for the train.
When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose. For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me. But I forced myself to go one word at a time. Before long, rather than feeling as though I had been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street. At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:
The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.
It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary. I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation. But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:
In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football. Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.
In my head, this was beautiful.
At page 85, I continue to creep along.
I think I can, I think I can.
There are dozens collections of New Yorker cartoons available, and all of the will serve you well enough if you need a fix of that particular and unique brand of humor. A new collection, however, promises something a little different, the rejected cartoons: “Some were too racy, rude or rowdy. Some are too politically incorrect or too weird. A few are probably too dumb.” Those are the words of Matthew Diffee, New Yorker cartoonist and editor of the The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker. In a brief piece about the book in the LA Times Diffee writes: So most of our stuff gets rejected; and sure, some of the rejected cartoons are pretty bad and deserve to be hidden forever. But there are always a few gems that are missed, and believe me, we remember them. So I decided to collect the best rejects from a number of my friends and colleagues – all regular New Yorker cartoonists, but all of whom, like me, have nine out of 10 of their submissions rejected.I might have to check this one out.
Book blog fans: you may want to point your browsers to Beatrix, a new blog at ArtsJournal by Ron Hogan, the proprietor of the well-know blog Beatrice. With this impressive bit of branding, Ron has really locked down the “women’s names that begin with Beatri-” market.