Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: This Old Man (2015)

By Roger Angell

The number of people whose writing on baseball borders on the title of literature is a rather short one. Most of the work is basic and to the point, reflecting the task involved in the process.  In other words, it's tough to craft memorable work when the deadline is the final out.

Luckily for us, a select few people have had the time and inclination to ponder bigger pictures. Baseball can do that, with its relaxed rhythms and the lack of a deadline for a nightly conclusion. Its most serious practitioner over the years might be Roger Angell, who - it's good to report - is still out there as of this writing.

Angell probably will say he was an unlikely candidate for that distinction, and he was right. Angell served as a writer and editor for the New Yorker for many years, which is hardly a breeding grounds for literary works concerning horsehide. But he pulled it off, somewhat in his spare time since he was the fiction editor

Now Angell is in his 90s, looking back on a career that featured contributions to the famous magazine in 1944 and saw him go on the masthead in 1956. He's still writing a bit even now, but "This Old Man" is a collection of articles and other work from the later stages of his career that was released in 2015. To put it in appropriate terms, Angell still had a pretty good fastball when after his peers had stopped working. Think of Nolan Ryanb.

Those who come to this book from reviews like this will find satisfaction here, since baseball plays a key role in the collection. Angell's best work on baseball came when he was just starting to write about the sport and thus on the anonymous side. Go read "Five Seasons" and "The Summer Game" to see what I mean. He had some distance from the subjects. For a while there he was so celebrated it was difficult to have enough space to get some necessary perspective. But now that he's sitting back and reflecting again, there's a wisdom that ropes in the reader. Some of it was shown over the fuss made when Barry Bonds approached the all-time record for home runs. Angell argues that such records matter little because of changes in the sport over the years - a refreshing viewpoint considering the whole did-he-or-didn't-he saga about Bonds and steroids.

But there's other stuff here as well. Angell includes work on other writers in his life, his summer home in Maine, notes to friends, etc. I'm not about to tell you that I understood all of the references here, or even recognized the names. But that doesn't mean the beauty of how the words in those stories were collected and distributed can't be enjoyed by those who think Vladimir Nabokov is a defenseman for the San Jose Sharks.

And every so often Angell turns a phrase that is so precise, so perfect, that you feel like poking the person next to you so you'll have the pleasure of reading it aloud. Comedy writer Bill Scheft has a phrase for this - get out of the business good. As in, you'll never write like this so why try?

I won't bother trying to give a rating with stars to "This Old Man." Those who like his work probably have him installed as a national treasure as his 98th birthday approaches. Others will only read the baseball parts, wondering why they should care about New Yorker founder Harold Ross. And that's fine. A baseball team needs a few players to fill roles in order to be successful. But some superstars need to be part of the mix as well, and Angell has had that role covered for decades.

Learn more about this book.

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