- Jonathan Lethem
- "I felt starved for something booklike in this book-resembling object."
- 12/10/09 at 09:00
In the spirit of full disclosure of Luddite-Fuddy-Duddy Lameness, let me begin by saying here that not only are some of Simmons's television and Internet culture references lost on me, I had never heard of Bill Simmons before the publication of his book. I didn't know there was a Sports Guy, which sounds disqualifyingly bad, I fear.
Then, in the spirit of self-involved free-associational bragging, let me tell you that the (totally charming) epilogue portrayal of Bill Walton at home with his bookshelves reminded me of the fact that I know because David Halberstam told me before he died that he, Halberstam, gave Bill Walton a copy of Motherless Brooklyn and that Walton loved it. A nice moment for me. And then the fact that Walton admitted to Simmons that he'd never read Halberstam's great—truly, great—The Breaks of the Game, in which Walton is the hero subject, reminded me of the fact that when I met a guy with a case of Tourette's syndrome that lived up to my exaggerations in that book—a famous patient of Oliver Sacks's—he told me he'd gotten bored reading Motherless Brooklyn after a couple of chapters. I could tell he didn't mean he found it disagreeable, he just felt the book had nothing to tell him. Maybe Walton felt the same way about Halberstam. I also took a moment to remember how grimly unfair it was that a writer who'd braved Vietnam died in the passenger seat while being escorted on book tour, in Palo Alto.
In a long-ago attempt to write a piece of basketball fiction, I read every novel ever written about basketball (to that point, almost twenty years ago). An easy assignment, because there were so few. Good ones, fewer. As far as nonfiction about basketball goes, however, I've only ever read Halberstam's book, and John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are. (Yes, I'm feeling awkwardly snobbish again.) To consider Simmons in that context would have been to hold him up to an impossible—a meaningless—standard. But internal cues told me the standard I was meant to apply instead was Bill James, whose baseball books I used to devour like Cap'n Crunch.
Well, I devoured this book like Cap'n Crunch. I have to say I was completely sunk for any other kind of reading (or much of anything else) until I'd finished it. Only maybe I'd forgotten about the slightly metallic or plasticky aftertaste when you've binged like that. I felt starved for something booklike in this book-resembling object I'd curled up with for several evenings, hungered for something more complete and embracing. Perhaps it was the hardcovers, perhaps the word "book" in the title—a protests-too-much tautology James always skirted with his "Abstracts"—and perhaps it was my feeling that something corporately bloglike was stuck here and there in my teeth. Bill James had backed into bookitude from a realm of genuinely hobbitlike home-brewed mimeograph-ink-stained fannishness, whereas Simmons feels like some kind of manufactured common-Joe surrogate, a Superfan. (The Gladwell introduction didn't help with this feeling.)
And I certainly resisted most the sequences where he openly regurgitates his own blog entries—LeBron and Kobe—so if I'd recognized other reprocessed chunks I might have resisted those too. A book's context is supposed to be enclosed within the space of its own conception, the terms defined internally. Simmons's glances at his public reputation were distracting, at best. For instance, there's too much about how he's suppressing his Celtics love, which isn't remotely suppressed. I guess some public shtick established elsewhere was supposed to make me see how Celtic-abnegating he'd been here.
Yet despite some objections to this bloat and strain, and—fuddy-duddy alert—to sexism, and of course the carping about particular rankings and particular biases that I'm sure we'll all delve into more deeply in the next round, Simmons did strike me as a persuasively passionate, puppyish, all-senses-tingling advocate for basketball per se. I bring this up because it may be relatively easy to overlook, but I suspect that if many of his readers are like me—and I suspect many are—he's capable of reigniting a passion that, despite LeBron, has dimmed considerably in recent years, after the loving-Magic-and-Bird years gave way to the vibrantly-hating-Detroit years gave way to the holy-shit-Michael-Jordan years gave way to not finding my way back into the game, not identifying the way I used to. Like the new biography of Patricia Highsmith which didn't really work for me as a book, but did pass the essential test of sending me back energized to Highsmith's novels, I'm watching basketball games again, and watching them differently, and reading box scores too. It had been a while.
I realize I haven't confessed my woeful stakes in all this. Golden State Warriors. (I was grateful he didn't forget how good Chris Mullin was for a little while.)