This week’s question for Pandemic Baseball Book Club members: What is your favorite non-baseball book?
Here are my two favorite non-baseball books (I couldn't pick just one):
1) A Confederacy of Dunces. Having gone to college in New Orleans just a few years after this novel was released, I find I have an unbreakable bond with it. I read it every few years and can smell the magnolia trees every time, no matter where I am when I read it and no matter what time of the year it is. I don't think there's a better funny novel out there — a novel that is humorous, yes, but which also tells a compelling story with characters you get to know and feel for. Oh, and as anybody who's ever spent a significant amount of time in New Orleans knows, Ignatius Reilly is a real person. You're prone to seeing him just about anywhere. Spend a few hours waiting for the Freret Street bus. Guarantee you'll see him eventually.
2): Stoner. The best academic novel ever written, and perhaps the best novel of the 20th century, period. Another one I read over and over. Reminds me every time that, sure, academics are petty and vindictive, but in a particular sort of way. And that's how we like it.
Technically it's three books, but I'll call it one: my favorite non-baseball book is the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos. I'm not sure I can really explain why: there's something about how it tells both this massive, sweeping, epic story and also focuses so deeply on the lives of its characters; something about how it embraces mythology; something about the pacing; something about the vividness of his prose. It just stuck with me.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. I can pick it up, open it to any page and be drawn in all over again. The story is both magical and raw. The writing flows as if it always existed on the page; Morrison shows nothing of the craft. So I find myself studying one passage or another, trying to understand how it is that these ordinary words can stop my heart.
I spent five years researching The Baseball Codes, during which time I read nothing but baseball non-fiction as research. Turning in the manuscript was momentous for me, in part because it meant that I finally got to pick up an actual novel. The one I would select was important, and I wanted to choose carefully. The book I chose was Infinite Jest. At 1,000+ pages, it took me something like nine months to complete, and completely torpedoed my intention to rip through as many novels as I could as quickly as I could. Here’s the catch: I’d already read it. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and what kind of time commitment was involved. I chose it as my parole book anyway. It’s just that mind-bending, mind-blowing and wonderful.
The Glory and The Dream, by William Manchester: This two-volume narrative history of political and social life in America, from the Depression in 1932 until Watergate in 1974, is history that you wish had been taught in high school and college. It is filled with anecdotes and insights into the times and the lives of the men and women who changed our country — for better and for worse. Manchester was a great storyteller, and his eye for detail and his knack of getting at stories that were never told brought to life each and every era he wrote about it. He did what every writer tries to do: take complex issues and make them simple to understand without losing any of the important details. It truly is a stunning piece of work.
Selecting a favorite non-baseball book is virtually impossible. I can, however, come up with two that were extremely important to me: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which drastically altered my views on mortality, and James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, which celebrated the author’s apparent belief in the most important word with the letter “O” in it. (It’s not “love,” if you haven’t read the book.*)
About 10 years ago, my dad gifted me a copy of Robert Henri's The Art Spirit. It sat on my shelf and moved with me about four times before I ever picked it up, but the timing was downright cosmic when I did. Henri's teachings and philosophies about being an artist perfectly articulated everything I was experiencing at the time, and helped me to understand my inherent value as an artist. I've drawn my whole life, but I've never been the strongest draftswoman. That isn't to say I've been lazy about it — I've worked my butt off trying — but for a long time I never knew where to channel the effort, because becoming the best artist was never something I could bring myself to care about. Up until my early 30s, I had no awareness of my strengths or how to embrace them. I only knew that technical mastery was not among them. Without that confidence, I never really allowed myself to go all in on something I truly wanted to do.
Robert Henri died 50 years before I was born, but I consider him to be one of my favorite art teachers. He isn't esoteric or haughty. He offers great technical tips. But the most valuable thing he offers is the knowledge that great art has far less to do with technique and everything to do with feeling. "People say, 'It is only a sketch.' It takes the genius of a real artist to make a good sketch . . . and to do it all with such simple shorthand means. One must have wit to make a sketch."
The Nuremberg Trials by Terry Burrows is about the Nazi generals brought to justice. It brought into real focus the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Jewish people and many other nationalities.
I recognize Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain, as the greatest American writer of all time. The first of his books to come to my attention, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," is also my favorite. It's a great story — Huck's escape from abuse, Jim's escape from slavery, Tom Sawyer's escape from reality as he makes melodrama of the whole venture. No one I have read is better at satirizing and mocking the foibles of the human race. The giant frauds the Duke and the Dauphin, fleecing a series of river town rubes with their ridiculous stage shows, and the Shepardsons and the Grangerfords, two feuding families virtually wiping each other out over a family feud, are vivid representations of the gullibility and spite that can tarnish the human race.
To get to its eventual towering spot on the literary pedestal, the book had to survive critics who didn't get Clemens' use of "coarse" vernacular, and today it has to survive criticism for being unsuitable for teenagers (which is when I read it), and maybe a little racist due to its choice of words. Well, Clemens served briefly and without seeing combat as a Confederate militiaman, but wound up marrying into a strong abolitionist family and supporting reparations for former slaves. He was a writer in transition on this subject, as is Huck Finn, who feels strange treating a black man as an equal as they drift downstream, but does everything he can to help his partner escape.
* Thurber’s word is “Hope.”