Saturday, September 23rd, 2006
7:09 am - Long Time, No Books...  
Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball is a collection of short pieces Stephen Jay Gould wrote for various magazines and newspapers, published shortly after his death. It is the most boringest book about baseball I've read in a long time. That surprised me, because when I'd seen Gould on TV he was generally interesting (except for the awful Simpsons ep that he phoned in), and his books on evolution and biology are generally well regarded (although I haven't read any of them). I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this certainly wasn't it.

Part of the problem is that "various magazines and newspapers" bit. Gould has about five baseball-related personal anecdotes that he relates over and over again. Published in separate venues at different times, it probably wasn't all that noticeable. Collect those articles together in the same volume, and the third time in fifty pages that you read about him getting beat up in Brooklyn for being a Yankee fan, it starts getting a little tiresome.

The other thing is that he is unrelenting in his quest to show exactly how erudite he is. Granted, his target audience for most of these pieces was the New York Review of Books crowd, but it begins to approach self-parody in some passages. In a piece on the Abner Doubleday myth, in which he discusses why we know far more about the history of cricket than we do about the "base ball" mentioned by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, he states:

The upper and educated classes played cricket, and the history of the sport has been copiously documented because the literati write about their own interests, and because the activities of men in power are well recorded...

Apparently, despite all his fancy book learnin', Gould never learned the meaning of irony. It crops up again in a review of George Will's Men at Work:

By the way, Will's thesis, if ever properly grasped, would forthwith and forever end the silly discussion about the supposed anomaly of why so many intellectuals love baseball, and why baseball, alone among major sports, has a distinguished literature [with Will's book as the latest entry]. We who have loved and lived with the game all our lives feel no need to mount a defense against such ignorance.

That "defense against such ignorance" is, of course, exactly what both he and Will are doing in their respective works. The whole smarter than thou schtick gets annoying fast. There really is no legitimate excuse for using the phrase "fin de siècle" when "end of the century" works just as well and doesn't require checking the dictionary to figure out what the frell he's talking about.

There are some bright spots. His biographical sketches, especially those of Jim Thorpe and Dummy Hoy, are well worth reading (although the piece on Barry Bonds seems naïve now, but we have more information than Gould did), and there are a couple of pieces in which he flexes his scientist muscles that are interesting. Mostly, though, it's listless and boring. I have a theory that this may partly result from the almost inconceivable notion that he considered himself a fan of both the Yankees and the Red Sox. The only explanation I can think of for this sad state of affairs is that in the era in which he moved to Boston from New York there was no rivalry from the Yankee perspective. Sox fans hated the Yankees, but Yankee fans didn't give the Sox a second thought. Anyway, it means that all his fannish passion had to be carefully controlled, like matter and anti-matter, lest it explode. There just doesn't seem to be a lot of passion here.

I also reread Asimov's The Caves of Steel, the first Lije Baley mystery. It's not as good as The Naked Sun. Part of it is that I've just never bought the premise of the "Cities." The other is that I kept getting distracted by the total illogic of the Expressways, the preferred method of travel in Baley's agoraphobic culture. It's basically the same system that Heinlein came up with in "The Roads Must Roll," humongous conveyor belts moving at 60 mph, with additional belts along either side, each moving slower than the one next to it, so that one can gradually cross from belt to belt until one either reaches the center belt or solid ground. The high speed belts are used for long distance travel, so they are fitted with chairs and windscreens (Heinlein's even had newsstands and food vendors, IIRC). All well and good until one remembers that these endless belts aren't actually endless. Sooner or later they have to be sent back the other way. If they were just plain belts, it's easy enough to picture a system much like the people movers at airports. At the end of the run, the belt goes down into a slot to head back the other way, while the people on board step forward onto a slightly slower belt that then dumps them onto an even slower belt, etc., until they finally step onto the unmoving end of the road.

But what happens when there are windshields and furniture and newsstands on the things? Where do they go? Down into the hole? What if someone is napping in a chair when it happens? That's the real mystery in this book. It's one of those ideas that sounds nifty until you start extrapolating out the ramifications of the thing, and realize it's really a stupid way to do things (sort of like a lot of the magical world descriptions in the early Harry Potter books).

Current reads are Trader to the Stars, Poul Anderson's first collection of Nicholas van Rijn stories, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.