Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 21, 2004
POP CULTURE/BASEBALL/POLITICS, etc.: A Few Of My Favorite Books
Nothing scratches the blog itch quite like a little bout of list-making. With that in mind, I decided to draw up a list of my all-time favorite books. For reasons that will become obvious, I limited myself to one book per author, and in some cases the one book is something of a stand-in for a larger body of work. The top 10-15 of these are the real immortals, the ones I go back to again and again. In some cases, I suppose, I've also stretched the definition of "book," but hey, it's my list. I also decline to apologize for the paucity of literature and the prominence of baseball memoirs on this list; I've always preferred polemics, analyses, humor and great storytelling, and I've never made pretense at being deeply intellectual in my interests:
24. Raymond Woodcock, Take the Bar and Beat Me: I enjoy my job and the law, but not to the point where I can't see the humor in the profession of law. Woodcock, a reformed lawyer, graduate of Columbia Law School and practitioner at a big New York firm that has since gone under, wrote a scathingly humorous look at law school and the legal profession, and one I highly recommend to anyone considering a career in the law. Woodcock's take is blithely cynical in some places, but also self-critical, as he looks at how the law changed him, including his divorce (an occupational hazard of lawyering).
23. Leo Durocher, Nice Guys Finish Last: Leo's book, like Leo himself, is funny, vindictive, manipulative and an essential key to understanding six decades of baseball history, from Leo's run-ins with Ty Cobb to his frustrations with Cesar Cedeno.
22. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged: A cliched choice for conservatives, although I came to read this one relatively late in life (just a few years ago) after I was pretty well set in my thoughts, and I still haven't read any of Rand's others. It's a tale well-told (even if John Galt's didactic speech drags a bit), skillfully playing on the unfairness, pettiness and venality of a system that gives some people the ability to decide how to dispose of the fruits of others' labors.
21. Joe Garagiola, Baseball is a Funny Game: Garagiola's was one of the first baseball books I read as a kid, and dog-eared it rather severely. It's unmistakably pre-Ball Four in its G-rated treatment of the game (it was published in 1960), and thus will seem horribly dated to the modern adult reader, but still manages to capture the earthy humor of ballplayers and the genuine love for the game of guys like Garagiola and his boyhood pal Yogi Berra, who came up from a working-class Italian-American section of St. Louis. Garagiola also captures an up-close look at important figures like Branch Rickey and Frankie Frisch. A similar collection of humorous stories about the game from the 1970s can be found in the late Ron Luciano's books.
20. Stephen Carter, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby: A tough choice between Carter's books on church and state, affirmative action, and judicial confirmations, so I picked the one I read first. Carter describes himself mostly as a political liberal, but he fits comfortably in the neo-liberal camp in his willingness to challenge orthodoxies of the Left, especially on questions of race and religion. His writing is also a model of clarity and directness.
19. Scott Turow, One L: Yes, this was particularly influential because (like most everybody else in my law school class) I read it the summer before starting law school at Harvard. Harvard and law schools generally have changed a good deal since the 1970s, but Turow captures perfectly (and contributes to) the essentially internal psychodrama of the place. I'm also giving Turow credit here for his works of straight fiction, which are intricate and absorbing, however seamy.
18. Stephen King, Christine: King's books are always gripping, most of all The Shining and Christine. The latter gets extra points here for King's vividly accurate portrait of the minds of high school kids and the real and imagined terrors that can overcome them.
17. Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: As frightening as any Stephen King book, but much sadder; Bowden not only rescued the Battle of Mogadishu from historical obscurity, but in the process drew a compelling picture of the modern American military and the men who populate it, the mindset and tactics of its Third World adversaries (sometimes in spite of decent men in their midst), and the gulf that separates the two. The book's indictment of foreign-policy adventures like Somalia is almost an afterthought but one that stays with you.
16. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August: If Bowden provided a readable and engrossing look at war from the ground level, Tuchman's World War I classic did the same from the top down. Tuchman recognized the Shakespearean tragedy of the onset of the Great War, and presents the plans of the various generals and the vissicitudes of the onset of war to maximize that effect. I also loved her book A Distant Mirror, a chilling compendium of the ills (literal and figurative) of 14th Century Europe.
15. Raymond Smullyan, Alice in Puzzle-Land: One of the many things I got from my mother was a love of logic puzzles, and Smullyan is the master of them. This book isn't just a collection of increasingly brain-bending puzzles, like his book The Lady or The Tiger?; it's also a clever and stylish takeoff on Lewis Carroll's bizarre cast of characters. The book is out of print and hard to find, but it remains a favorite.
14. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: I was a bit of a latecomer to the Harry Potter books, having seen the first two movies with my wife (who'd read the books) before diving into this, the third installment (I've subsequently read the first two to my son); now I'm hooked. Having read all five, the third is the best, with a taut, fast-moving plot carrying lots twists (granted that a number of the surprises are telegraphed in advance). Perhaps as importantly, for the adult reader, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces the series' serious adult characters (i.e., characters who are more than just quirky authority figures).
13. The Opinions of Justice Antonin Scalia: The Caustic Conservative: Yes, I'm cheating here by citing a book that hasn't been released yet, based on its likely contents consisting of judicial opinions. I'll narrow it down here to its essence: the two opinions I particularly have in mind, and which have greatly influenced my thinking about American government and its principles, are his lone dissent in Morrison v. Olson (in which he argued that the independent counsel statute was unconstitutional, in terms that his nearly unanimous critics eventually had to concede a decade later), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (his denunciation of the theoretical emptiness and illegitimacy of the Court's abortion jurisprudence). Taken together, the opinions set out a central theme of conservative thought about government: the need to draw governmental power only from sources whose legitimacy can be reaffirmed by keeping them accountable to the people.
12. Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who: In enumerating favorite and influential books, too many people neglect the books they learned from first. But Dr. Seuss deserves a special place, and not only for charming this and many other hearers of his books to become readers of books in the first place. (I've also noted their usefulness in teaching children to read aloud). His longer books, with stories that have a moral to them, are masterpieces of precise and whimsical use of the English language, and in most cases manage to make their point without getting preachy, even on subjects (e.g., The Lorax and environmentalism) that are prone to heavy-handed one-sidedness. And they hold up so well that they are the rare children's book that an adult actually enjoys reading for its own sake.
My current favorite of these is I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew, which is a none-too-thinly-veiled slap at utopianism of all kinds. But the one that's endured the most in my consciousness since childhood is Horton Hears a Who, with a mantra that should be the creed of any pro-lifer: "A person's a person no matter how small." And its message of Horton's solitary courage when surrounded by neighbors who wish to define the Whos out of existence (one with undoubted Holocaust overtones) remains a powerful one for readers tall and small alike.
11. Baseball Prospectus 1999: I've arbitrarily picked the first of the BP books I bought. The Prospectus hasn't always been on the right side of the many arguments its staff has raised. Nor has it been as influential or groundbreaking, or nearly as entertaining, as Bill James' work; but the comparison is unfair. What matters is that they've consistently asked the important questions that were needed to move serious analysis of the game forward in the 1990s and beyond, and in so doing they've done a lot to drive the terms of debate ever since. I would never have understood baseball's post-1994 business environment and its ramifications without BP, and their work on projections, translations and pitcher workloads has often been groundbreaking. This is the first book I turn to every year to get a handle on the new season.
10. Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities: Wolfe's novel about a Wall Street investment banker who becomes a cause celebre after hitting a young African-American teen with his car after taking a wrong turn in the Bronx just perfectly sums up all the ills of pre-Giuliani New York (only some of which have been fixed since then). The satirical bite of the book is only enhanced by Hollywood's ham-handed efforts to sanitize its portrait of New York's ethnic politics. My dad, who was on the NYPD until the late 80s, swears by the authenticity of many of the scenes in this classic.
9. Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need: If you've only read Dave Barry's columns and skipped his books, you've missed a lot. I had a tough choice between the Travel Guide and Barry's Short History of the United States, which is basically his annual year-end column writ large, but the Travel Guide packed in just an unbelievable number of laughs in a short space.
8. Lawrence Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: Simply the best oral history of baseball ever done, and the one all the others copied. Ritter got a number of ballplayers from the early 20th century to open up to him; all or nearly all of them are dead and gone now, but not their stories.
7. The Book of Job: As you can no doubt tell from the balance of content on this blog, I'm a Catholic who doesn't think about religion as often as I should. But the Bible undoubtedly informs my thinking in ways I can't even perceive, and when I have read Scripture, the book I've most enjoyed reading (from the Old Testament, ahem) is Job. Job deals with the toughest questions that face any believer in an omnipotent and benevolent God must grapple with -- why bad things happen to good people, where sin and suffering belong in the world -- and doesn't provide any easy answers.
6. Peter Gammons, Beyond the Sixth Game: The best assignment I ever had in school was when my sophomore English teacher, Mr. Donnelly, gave us a list of books to report on and one of them was this classic by Peter Gammons. Gammons is a lot of things to a lot of people, and these days he's best known for (1) having the game's most extensive network of sources, and (2) uncritically repeating everything those sources tell him (which is not unrelated to the maintenance of (1)). He is at times an open mind friendly to statistical analyses of the game, and at times gives a soapbox and his imprimatur to denunciations of statistical analyses of the game.
But first and foremost, Gammons is a guy who loves baseball, loves the Red Sox, and can really write. Beyond the Sixth Game is the tale of the Red Sox from 1976-1985, when Gammons was the Boston Globe's beat writer for the team, and it's a love letter to every fan whose heart was broken by those teams, and a cold-eyed analysis of how it happened (Gammons' thesis is that the ownership of the Sox failed to appreciate the new financial realities of the free agent era). His portraits of the players are detailed and affectionate (especially Carlton Fisk and Luis Tiant, two guys Gammons obviously really did think were very special people), and his narratives of the pivotal 1977 and 1978 seasons soar. No Red Sox fan - no baseball fan - should do without this book.
5. Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution: Ask conservatives of my generation about Ronald Reagan or conservatism, and chances are pretty good that you will get a picture heavily influenced by one of his "wordsmiths," Peggy Noonan. The book is only secondarily a memoir, although it does capture (with Noonan's eye for sympathetic detail) numerous Washington figures of the 80s, as well as her previous boss, Dan Rather, of whom Noonan was very fond despite his politics. More importantly, it's a book about writing -- about a particular kind of writing (political speeches), how they get created, why they matter, and what's important in crafting them. It's also a tribute to a set of conservative ideals, and how they continued to inspire conservatives even when their practitioners didn't always live up to their promise.
4. The Orwell Reader: Yes, I'm cheating again by including an anthology. Another invaluable assignment -- the best thing I got out of college, academically -- was buying this book for Professor Green's British Empire class. I re-read it end to end again after September 11. Orwell hardly needs my introduction; his depictions of working-class life in the 1930s (coal miners, dish washers) are famously vivid, and his jeremiads against those who wouldn't stand up to fascism are the stuff of legend. My favorite essays are "Politics and the English Language" and "England Your England" (I reached for the latter in the opening of my September 11 column, as well as reaching for a scene from the Council of Elrond from the next selection) and I'm sure I'm not alone in those choices.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: I had a tough choice here; The Hobbit was the first "grownup" book I ever read, back in the second grade, and it remains Tolkien's best-written book. But Fellowship of the Ring perfectly bridges the gap between the lighthearted adventure of The Hobbit and the epic sweep of Lord of the Rings, and launches the greatest fantasy epic of all time. The question: what will good men do in the face of unremitting evil? Tolkien's answer isn't always reassuring.
2. P.J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores: As far as I'm concerned, still the best book ever written about American government; O'Rourke brings his vicious humor to every branch and agency of the federal government he can locate. His chapter on farm policy is the best thing I've ever read on the subject, and his account of a Housing NOW! march is sidesplitting. Along the way he encounters everyone from Pat Moynihan to Mike Dukakis to Ken Starr. But the book does have just one terribly cringe-inducing line, in retrospect; in his look at American foreign policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, O'Rourke states that
the main thing to be learned about foreign policy in this part of the world is that a wise foreign policy would be one that kept you out of here. There are some things you ignore at your peril, but you pay attention to Central Asia at the risk of your life.
Well, you knew that was coming; if I hadn't limited myself to one book per author, I'd have had a top 10 of Bill James books. As I've repeatedly noted, James has had a tremendous influence not only on my thinking about baseball but on my entire thinking process. I picked the first edition of the historical book because it is, on balance, the largest compilation of James' most pointed and entertaining writing and original thought, effortlessly spanning twelve decades of baseball history and bringing even the most distant past vibrantly to life. (I reviewed the new Historical Abstract here).
BASEBALL: Jim Bouton's Ball Four; Ron Luciano's umpire books (noted above); Pete Palmer and John Thorn, The Hidden Game of Baseball; Keith Hernandez, If at First (a very post-Ball Four look at the 1985 Mets); Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, Baseball Dynasties (another one I'd have enjoyed more if I didn't know the subject so well already); Charles Alexander's biographies of Ty Cobb, John McGraw and Rogers Hornsby; Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer (I really didn't enjoy the first part, about Kahn himself, but the sections on the players were fascinating, and it was particularly poignant in retrospect to read about Carl Furillo as a hardhat helping build the World Trade Center).
POLITICS: Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray, Showdown at Gucci Gulch; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind; Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
WAR/HISTORY: George Kennan's writings on the Soviet Union and on American foreign policy; David Pryce-Jones, Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.
LAW/LEGAL FICTION: The works of John Grisham, notably his first few novels; Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action.
HUMOR: The collected books and cartoons of Gary Larson (The Far Side), Scott Adams (Dilbert), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Charles Addams, Berke Breathed (Bloom County) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).
FICTION/LITERATURE: The collected works (nearly all of them) of Michael Crichton; Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
SCI-FI/FANTASY: The works of Isaac Asimov (including many of his books in other areas, notably his mysteries). There's a number of others I've enjoyed, but not enough to note a mention here.
BASKETBALL: The Rick Barry basketball annuals; I haven't seen one in years, but they heavily influenced my thoughts on the game in the early 1990s. I'm still reading the Basketball Prospectus, and that could be on the list soon.
CHILDREN'S BOOKS: The works of Richard Scarry; the Curious George books.
UPDATE: The Mad Hibernian reminds me that Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels should have been on this list.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:48 AM | Baseball 2004 | Law 2002-04 | Politics 2004 | Pop Culture | War 2004 | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)