Sunday, June 27, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Wyatt Mason's article on David Mitchell, "David Mitchell, the Experimentalist," in the June 27, 2010 edition of The New York Times Magazine:

When writing is great, Mitchell told me of the books he loved as a reader, “your mind is nowhere else but in this world that started off in the mind of another human being. There are two miracles at work here. One, that someone thought of that world and people in the first place. And the second, that there’s this means of transmitting it. Just little ink marks on squashed wood fiber. Bloody amazing.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reader's Despair Syndrome

Hello, my name is Avi, and I'm a readaholic.

I've always been something of an obsessive reader. I read my first Dave Barry column on January 1, 2000, as the comedy writer presented his summary of the millennium. I proceeded, throughout the course of my high school career, to read every single archived column available on any of the dozens of Dave Barry fan-sites I found. I think I was using AOL search, so I may have missed a few columns, but I did manage to uncover a few hundred pieces.

I repeated this general approach after reading Bill Simmons for the first time.

I still remember that fateful day--I was a senior in college--when I first discovered Google Reader. This is awesome, I thought. Google will deliver updates from any website I want? Awesome. What started off as four or five subscriptions soon ballooned to a dozen. I unsubscribed during those summers when computer access was limited, but resubscribed as soon as I returned to civilization. I currently sit at 36 subscriptions, and that's after pruning three in the last week. I don't read everything written on each of these sites. But I read everything from two dozen of them and I skim the rest. This, as I understand it, is a mild case.

At least according to Leon Neyfakh's article "Feed Me, I'm Hungry," published in The New York Observer:

Legions of jittery, media-conscious New Yorkers are eating themselves alive signing up for feeds they never end up reading  in hopes of becoming better people—more knowledgeable, more fun to talk to, more in control of their Internet consumption. They subscribe to dozens, sometimes hundreds of news sources, each of them added to the list with the best of intentions, motivated by the knowledge that, if they really wanted to—that is, if they had it in them to be disciplined and vigilantly curious—they could know everything there is to know. And so these poor balls of anxiety walk around with a constant awareness of all the hundreds of unread news stories, essays, reviews, and blog posts waiting for them on computers—all the marvels they're missing on Boing Boing and Kottke, all the Marginal Revolution posts, all the oil spill updates from The New York Times' U.S. news feed.

Call it Reader's Despair Syndrome, a condition that is afflicting New York's young and old with equal viciousness, but which tends to produce the most dramatic symptoms in people in their 20s and 30s, who retain hope that they will one day become more productive and virtuous in their Internet reading habits.

I've been thinking about these issues for a while, but it's always nice to both know that I'm not alone and to have these nebulous concepts articulated clearly. I'm not sure that this form of reading is good. Forget about whether RSS reading is healthy. I'm more concerned about what this does to me as a reader. Do I want to feel obligated to read the blogs that I love? Can I keep up with my reading without it feeling like an assignment in need of completion? 

Now, some of these subscriptions are for my blogging gig, so I don't really see a way to do without them. But I'm really curious about how I should treat my recently added subscriptions to The Paris Review Daily and Cardboard Gods. Would I enjoy these more if I visited these blogs only when I was in the mood to read them? I'm not sure what the answers are to these questions.

Are you a readaholic? How has RSS feeds changed the way you read?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Warren Spahn's Zipup Jersey

Warren Spahn was a superb pitcher. The all-time leader in pitching victories by a lefthander, Spahn's greatness holds up even under a more statistically inclined investigation. He never struck out a ton of batters, averaging only 4.4 SO/9 over the course of his career. But this unfortunate tendency to allow batters to make contact with his pitches didn't keep Spahn from compiling ten seasons in which he tallied at least 5 WAR, with a peak of 9.4 WAR in 1953. So yeah, obvious Hall of Famer.

The most surprising thing about Spahn, however, might just be his uniform. Take a look. There're no buttons on his shirt. The thing zips up.

This is crazy to me. I ran across a photo of Spahn in this zipup jersey over the weekend and I'm completely baffled by it.

I can just about picture Eddie Matthews repeatedly unzipping Spahn's shirt in the dugout. Baseball players love pranks.

Was this a standard practice in the early 1950s? Did the entire Boston Braves team wear these uniforms or did Spahn have some sort of aversion to buttons? Anyone have any more information on these shirts?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 17, 1994: Subtle Choices Are Choices Nonetheless

ESPN's presentation of Brett Morgen's documentary June 17, 1994--part of the sports network's 30 for 30 series--opens with the director addressing the audience, saying:

June 17, 1994 is not your typical documentary. There are no talking head interviews, there's no narration, there's simply my editor, myself, and a bunch of footage. Over the last ten years what I've been trying to do is create non-fiction films that are what I call experiential. They're movies that take place in the past but are presented in the present tense. The reason we chose June 17, 1994 is just about every emotion that one relates to sports took place on that day.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Morgen describe his directing style before the start of the film, but that person should be commended. Leaving aside the fact that this introductory remark may provide evidence that there is, in fact, at least one talking head interview included in the film, Morgen's opening explanation is a necessary one. It's the first documentary I've seen that eschews reflective interviews and, even if the audience would be able to follow the action without this documentary staple, it takes something of a mental shift to realize that what we're watching is not a meditation on that June date through the lens of sixteen years of reflection: we're watching the on-the-spot reactions of those who witnessed these events unfold in real time. Morgen's introduction might not be the most elegant way to prepare the audience for this change, but I'll take what I can get from ESPN.

The film follows a single day of events in the sports world. The New York Rangers victory parade down the streets of Manhattan. The opening day of the Chicago-hosted World Cup. Arnold Palmer playing his final round of golf at the US Open. Game 5 of the NBA finals, featuring the Knicks and Rockets. A full slate of baseball games. And, of course, OJ's car chase.

The most interesting part of the film is some really great behind-the-scenes footage of Bob Costas, hosting NBC's coverage of the NBA finals. Costas, in these clips, discusses with his production staff how to handle the uncomfortable need to broadcast what was considered a rather important basketball game during what became one of the biggest news stories of the century. The viewer sees Costas desperately trying to determine how best to introduce the game even while OJ sits in the back of a speeding car with a gun to his head. This, in a nutshell, is the major theme of the movie: it's an exploration of how context and juxtaposition create meaning and how people respond to these juxtapositions. While Costas puts on a professional and appropriate face, Morgen throws everything together, forcing the viewer to assimilate six events at once. Trust me when I tell you that each event informs the others, as everything always does. What's fascinating here is that no one--except maybe those working the nation's newsrooms--could possibly have followed the day's events with a level of attention matched by Morgen's mashed-up day. June 17, 1994 as experienced by an average American bears only a slight resemblance to June 17, 1994 as experienced by the film's audience.

And this brings us back to Morgen's opening claim. Just because Morgen claims that this is a thoroughly experiential film, throwing the viewer back in time to 1994, doesn't mean that we have to believe him. As in all films, what the audience sees on-screen is highly curated. The very editing itself is nothing if not a subtle form of reflection, offering moments of commentary through juxtapositions that are anything but neutral. Jumping from OJ's 1985 NFL Hall of Fame induction speech in which he thanks Nicole for some of the best years of his life to an image of a bloody garment at the Simpson residence in 1994 says something. Bringing together footage of a high-speed car chase and a clip of OJ running through an airport on Hertz's dime says something. Apposing the Rangers Stanley Cup victory parade with the throngs who lined the California freeways to gawk at and cheer for OJ's infamous white Bronco says something. Of course, films are supposed to say things. That's the point. And no, this documentary does not faithfully represent how anyone actually experienced that warm June day, but, again, this is the point of film: to selectively tell a story, bringing together diverse elements while omitting needless ones. Morgen does that in spades.


Paragraph of the Week

Lorin Stein, writing on the excellent The Paris Review Daily blog:

The best thing that ever happened to me as a would-be writer was reading Infinite Jest. I was also twenty-four and spent my days sitting in front of an empty screen, full of a sense of duty and despair. That book cured me. It said all the things I'd have wanted my novel to say—things I'd never have dreamt up on my own in a million years. Keep reading and you will find the book that lets you off the hook. The world doesn't need your fiction. The question is whether you need it, and over time that question will answer itself without interference from you.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

A selection of Roger Birnbaum's interview with The New Yorker's editor-in-chief, David Remnick, published in The Morning News:

RB: How much is the New Yorker a barometer, a thermometer, litmus test, measuring stick of cultural developments in the United States? Does the ongoing success of the New Yorker say anything about literacy, book-buying, things like that?

DR: Well, if that were the case than it would defy all [the] dark imaginings of all the prognosticators, because our circulation seems to go up. I have to tell you—one of the good parts about traveling or getting out of the house and the well-worn groove between my apartment and the office, and meeting people at this event or that event, is the number of people who come up and, in a non-routine sort of way, almost with an urgency, tell me how important the magazine is to them. Not me, not any single writer, even the enterprise by itself and its constancy. Not because it’s unfailing or because it’s perfect—that’s too ridiculous to hope for—but because of its ambition. I don’t think we are all alone, by the way. There are a number of magazines I really admire and respect that are quite different from ours. But I remember, one week after getting this job, in the almost absurd way I got it, I had to go to San Francisco, and I was at dinner and some guy came up to me. He had been in the Midwest and lived in San Francisco and he came up to the table where we were having dinner and grabbed my arm in a way that was slightly alarming and his message to me was, “Don’t fuck this up!”

RB: (laughs)

DR: “This magazine has meant something to me since I was 14 or 15 years old.” This guy had to be 50 if he was a day, and so his attachment to it was really important to him. And that happens all the time in one way or another.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Have the NBA Finals Truly Begun?

These NBA Playoffs have disappointed me. Sure, there've been moments of greatness. Artest's follow-up. Artest's interview. Los Suns. Westbrook introducing himself to the world. Nash's battered face. But, overall, a lack of competitiveness marked the first three rounds of this tournament. The losing teams just didn't compete, most prominently exemplified by LeBron and his Cavs surrendering to Boston. The Playoffs are meant to avoid the type of mismatches we normally see in a random February contest featuring Utah and New Jersey. They're fun because they offer the highest level of competition, pitting only the really good teams against one another. And we just didn't get that in the first three rounds. The four losing teams in the Conference Semifinals combined for a total of two wins. The average margin of victory for the Orlando Magic in its second round series was 25 points. Neither the games nor the series were all that close.

The NBA Finals--or, at least, the initial three games of them--have suffered from a different problem. It's not so much that the losers have failed to compete as it is that the winners have failed to play their best. Let's take last night's Game 3 as an example. LA managed a pretty good 109 points per 100 possessions, but did it seem as if the team played well? Bad Kobe showed up, shooting 10-29 overall, including 1-7 from three. And it wasn't as if Kobe had good shots rim out. He was taking difficult, difficult shots, many of them out of the flow of the offense. Pau Gasol, one of the premier big men in the NBA, only attempted eleven shots. Seriously, who played well for the Lakers? Fisher and Odom. And Luke Walton? Is good performances from those three really enough to win an NBA Finals game? The same is true for Boston in its Game 2 victory. Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo had historically great games, but no one else really excelled, certainly not Pierce and Garnett.

This series so far seems preliminary. LA looks like it'll pull things off because how often will Ray Allen make eight three-balls in one game? But maybe Boston will win it because there's no way that Allen will fail to make a field goal again. Garnett followed up two awful games with a great one. Kobe and Gasol had each provided their least in Game 3--and LA still won. What will happen if both teams play well in the same game? I have no idea. But here's hoping we get to find out.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

There is No Away

I stumbled across an interesting public art project, located just down the block from my apartment. It's called The Landscape of No Away: A Community Eco-Art Project, with the subtitle "You cannot throw anything away. There is no away," created by Keesje Fischer and Patricia Eakins. The arresting display consists of fake plastic flowers hanging on a fence near the 190th Street A Train station, fake plastic flowers constructed from recycled beverage bottles and other such plastics which, as the artists state, are the least biodegradable materials. Take a look:

I especially like this part of the artists' statement, even if it uses too many dashes:

When a flower, a leaf, or a vine, has been created from objects ordinarily thrown in the trash--a plastic juice or soda bottle, a grocery bag, the plastic shells that encase many objects we buy in a store--the mystery of transformation that is central to art is glossed with playful irony--trash that mimics nature--yet it contains within it the seeds of hope: the least biodegradable materials, like plastic bottles, that persist in the eco-system and smother it, have the potential for change into art that honors the natural world.

Paragraph of the Week

Jonathan Franzen, in the June 6, 2010 New York Times Book Review:

There are any number of reasons you shouldn’t read “The Man Who Loved Children” this summer. It’s a novel, for one thing; and haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster? As an old English professor friend of mine likes to say, novels are a curious moral case, in that we feel guilty about not reading more of them but also guilty about doing something as frivolous as reading them; and wouldn’t we all be better off with one less thing in the world to feel guilty about?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Alain de Botton on Distraction

See, I told you unitasking and paying attention and knowledge diets are the new hotnesses. Here's Alain de Botton:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.


The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.
The crazy part is that the three posts I've published on this topic in the last ten days are all based on articles that I've come across in my normal reading. I've done nothing to search out this theme. It's just there.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Unitasking is the New Hotness

I don't like stunt journalism. It was interesting for about a minute, and now it's not anymore. I'm talking about those books which detail the author's attempt to do something for, let's say, a year. It could be following Oprah's advice. Living biblically. Living completely rationally. Following George Washington's 110 rules for life. Going undercover as a movie star. The last four of those, in fact, were all attempted by A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire who also happens to have a new book out, titled The Guinea Pig Diaries.

In general, I'm not sure how possible it is to write without having that very process of writing significantly affect the experiences and thoughts being written about. This, I think, is one of the very most important functions of writing. But stunt journalism is different. Instead of clarifying past thoughts and memories after the fact, this type of writing predetermines the actions themselves as--or even before--they happen.

All that is by way of introduction to this piece by Mr. Jacobs, in which he attempts to unitask for a month. I'm not particularly impressed by the article, but, hey, if you're into this type of writing, go for it. Jacobs, if for no other reason than his impressive prolificacy, is the high priest of stunt journalism. I'm writing about it now because once A.J. Jacobs tries to do something for a month, that's a pretty good indication that the activity is one that people are thinking about. And so, get ready to hear a whole lot of simplifying our lives in the next few years. Unitasking is the new hotness.