What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

If I’ve failed to mention it previously, allow me to state vigorously right now that one use of NotGraphs will be to provide for the readership reviews of forthcoming (or recently released) baseball books. In fact, provided the good people of DeCapo Books — publishers of Jim Collins’ excellent Last Best League — provided they’re not lying liar faces from Liarville, I’ll soon have in my possession two books — Tim Wendel’s High Heat and Sean Manning’s Top of the Order — whose contents I’ll be very happy to consume and disclose in the near-ish future.

However, I don’t think it’s book reviews proper that I intend to discuss right now.

If I’m understanding correctly — and it’s quite possible that I’m not — but if I am understanding correctly, book reviews generally come in two forms. In the first kind of review, the writer serves, more or less, as a deputy for the consumer. His (i.e. the reviewer’s) job in this case is to acquaint himself with a text and relate to the people at home whether it’s worth their time and/or money.

In the second kind of book review — what we might, in fact, call “criticism” — the worth of the book in question is more or less taken for granted. In these cases, the author serves not as a deputy for the consumer, but as an Idea Man.

William Zinsser, a person who’s spent a lot of time considering these matters, writes in On Writing Well that “Criticism is a serious intellectual act.” He continues:

It tries to evaluate serious works of art and to place them in the context of what has been done before in that medium or by that artist. This doesn’t mean that critics must limit themselves to work that aims high; they may select some commercial product like Law & Order to make a point about American society and values. But on the whole they don’t want to waste their time on peddlers. They see themselves as scholars, and what interests them is the play of ideas in their field.

This is the sort of writing one finds in The New York Review of Books, for example, and practitioners of this style often become as noted as the authors whose works they’re reviewing.

(Finally, I suppose, we could add a third mode of writing about books — i.e. the nakedly academic. In this mode, one will write, for example, on the theme of fraternity in the works of Baudelaire. The purpose of this sort of writing is, I suppose, to add to our collective understanding of an important author. Also, it’s to get a university job.)

So, like I say, if I’m understanding correctly, this is what people talk about when they talk about book reviews.

However, there’s another way of approaching books that I believe might be more relevant to this space.

Consider: I’ve been spending some time recently with a book called A Brief History of American Sports by historians Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein. It’s a text about which I’ve written very briefly in these pages — and would like to write about more.

The problem is, neither of the aforementioned models (reviews or criticism) are particularly suited to discussing this text at NotGraphs.

Because the book was published in 2004, it doesn’t make sense to say that I’m serving as a deputy for the consumer. Consumers have had some six years to buy it. It’s not exactly hot off the presses, innit?

On the other hand, something as involved as “criticism” is almost definitely outside the scope of this site. For one thing, my personal knowledge of the genre isn’t particularly strong, rendering it impossible for me to ably “place [it] in the context of what has been done before.” And for another thing, even in its short existence, NotGraphs has been defined by compact and white-hot prose. This is one of its strengths, I’d argue, but anathema to sustained discourse.

And yet, despite the fact that neither of these models is well-suited to discussing Gorn and Goldstein’s book, I feel pretty strongly that there are things in this work that would interest the readership.

That being the case, what I’d like to propose now is another way of writing about books — a way so simple, I’m positive that it’s widely utilized even though I’ve never really come across it.

What I’m proposing is that I — a semi-professional baseball writer — both identify and then read interesting baseball-related books. What I’m also proposing is that, as I’m reading these books, I share with the readership notable passages or ideas from the same, and occasionally adorn those passages or ideas with LOL-inducing witticisms.

That’s it. Just that.

It occurs to me that — besides adhering to the tone established here at NotGraphs — that such a form has two advantages.

For one, it’s more representative of the way in which people read books. There is something to me a little irksome about the ratio of man hours to product necessary for the typical book review. I don’t particularly care to imagine someone spending hours first reading an entire book, then concocting interesting ideas about the book, and, finally, rendering those ideas into print. That seems like a lot of work.

Furthermore, this approach is, I think, more conducive to the blog form — a form that is well-suited to short, enthusiastic bouts of prose, but which resists sustained meditations or arguments.

I hope — besides the more orthodox, consumer-oriented book reviews which I’ll be providing in this space — I hope also to makes these Readings a fundamental part of NotGraphs.

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Read a book and write your thoughts about it?! Ideas of this import should not be noted on a simple weblog but carved into stone! And not just any stone: marble! [if carving is not practical, paint on a nice piece of slate will, grudgingly, suffice]