Two New Book Reviews

Take Time for Paradise book coverTake Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games by A. Barlett Giamatti.  New York: Bloomsbury, c1989, reissued 2011.

A book that makes my expensive liberal arts education seem worthwhile! 🙂

It seems a bit odd to be writing an “early review” of a book published in 1989, but I’m pleased that Bloomsbury chose to reissue this classic, originally a series of lectures, adding a foreword by Jon Meacham and a touching afterword by Marcus Giamatti (son of the author).

Take Time for Paradise explores leisure activity, including sports in general and baseball in particular, using the tools of philosophy, classics, and literature.  Giamatti invokes Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Homer in his explorations of “Self-Knowledge,” “Community,” and “Baseball as Narrative.”  If this description has you rolling your eyes and yawning, imagining an “ivory tower” analysis of your favorite activity, think again.  Giamatti was a scholar, but he was also a die-hard baseball fan—two characteristics which made him a good National League President and (briefly) Commissioner of Baseball; they also allow him to analyze baseball in interesting and thoughtful ways.

The first chapter/lecture, “Self-Knowledge,” sets the stage by examining the meaning and purposes of “leisure” as “not-work.”  Leisure is all about freedom; how we choose to spend our time when we are free to make that choice.  Leisure is how/when most of us seek fulfillment, aspiring to our vision of paradise.  To me, the most interesting passages in this chapter addressed the idea that sport is (like) religion.  Giamatti acknowledges the similarities in terms of sacred connections, rituals, and notions of paradise, but maintains that the self-transformation of leisure/sport need not be described in religious terms.

The second chapter/lecture, “Community,” explores sport as inherently connected to cities, rather than rural/garden/suburban contexts.  Here Giamatti addresses several sociological issues related to sports including drug/alcohol/steroid use, the danger of the cult of the young athlete, various forms of cheating, and the role of the spectator.  He also foreshadows many of the “modern developments” (e.g., giant scoreboards) and the need to accommodate both new and old fans.

“Baseball as Narrative,” the third chapter/lecture brings the themes of leisure, freedom, and community together in showing how baseball is about story.  The “plot” becomes a literal “plot of soil” in a whirlwind tour of the geometry and details of baseball fields.  The meditation on “home” manages to include family, Homer’s Odyssey and Romance.  Giamatti ties the series of lectures together by ending with a story of a hotel lobby during the World Series.

My favorite passage in the book provides an elegant response to those who view baseball as repetitious or boring:

“The game on the field is repetitious—pitch after pitch, swing after swing, player after player, out succeeding out, half inning making whole inning, top to bottom to top, the patterns accumulating and making organizing principles, all around and across those precise shapes in and on the earth.  Organized by the metric of the game, by the prosody of the play, is all the random, unpredictable, explosive energy of playing, crisscrossing the precise shapes in lines and curves, bounces and wild hops and parabolas and slashing arcs. There is a ferocity to a slide, a whispering, exploding sound to a fastball, a knife-edged danger to a ball smashed at a pitcher—there is a violence in the game at variance with its formal patterns, a hunger for speed at variance with its leisurely pace, a potential for irrational randomness at variance with its geometric shapes.” (p. 79)

In other words, all that repetition provides the framework for the quirky, unique story that is any particular baseball game.  Once you know that framework, and its rhythmic comforts, you can sit back (or on the edge of your seat) waiting for today’s story to unfold.  Giamatti goes on to compare this energy within rules to how the language of sonnets works: “The point being that freedom is the fulfillment of the promise of an energetic, complex order.” (p. 80).

I wept all the way through Marcus Giamatti’s afterword, a son’s tribute to and appreciation of both his father and the connection forged by a love of baseball.

If you find the most compelling thing about baseball to be statistics and fantasy teams, this probably is not the baseball book for you.  On the other hand, if you appreciate how scholarly analysis can combine with genuine enthusiasm to provide insightful musings on almost any activity, you will enjoy this book.


 

My Nine Lives book cover imageMy Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette, New York: Doubleday, 2010

As a former musician currently struggling with a hand/arm/shoulder injury and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I found much to relate to in this memoir: the endless search for “cures;” the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and (limited) acceptance of one’s “new” body/life.  (Unlike me) Fleisher was a child piano prodigy, student of Schnabel, and Outstanding Young American Pianist who later morphed into “the Bohemian” and “the young lion,” until “Catastrophe” (inability to use two fingers of his right hand) and its aftermath as conductor, teacher, left-handed pianist, and finally “renaissance man.”  And yes, those ten chapter titles capture the essence of Leon Fleisher’s story.  The joy and inspiration in what could have been a “woe is me” memoir come from the details and anecdotes that make up that arc of an 80-plus-year life.  Most of the stories are about music-making, but the personal stories (of famous musicians, of wives, children, god-children, students) reveal the truth of how one makes it through to the other side of a devastating “catastrophe” in life . . . “with a little [or a lot of] help from your friends.”

The writing style is very accessible (most musical concepts are clarified in everyday language so even non-musicians can follow along).  I particularly appreciated Fleisher’s ability to look back on some of his less-than-admirable times/behaviors with both wisdom and wit.  The photos at the beginning of each chapter and in a separate center section provide the reader with a glance into the full span of the author’s life.  My only criticism would be that there is some repetition of points and stories, which seemed unnecessary as I was reading the book cover-to-cover, but in this age of reading excerpts and single chapters, I suppose they will be helpful to some readers.

I would recommend this book to anyone struggling with a career ending/changing injury as well as to any up-and-coming young musicians out there.  The five “Master Class” sections inserted amongst the ten chapters are also helpful and interesting.  Each is a brief (almost too brief) but insightful commentary revealing one musician’s way of thinking about a particular piece: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503; Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major.

I only wish I had read the book before Fleisher came to town a few weeks ago.  I would have made sure to get a ticket.  Instead I will have to make due with listening to some of his many recordings (a selected Discography is included at the back of the book).