Sunday, April 10, 2011

On Writers and Athletes

Slate recently published an excerpt from Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom by Bill James, the high priest of the Stats Are King denomination of the Church of Baseball.

In this excerpt, James points out that Topeka, Kansas currently has the same population that London had in AD 1600.  London at that time was home to Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and Ben Johnson, all great writers still read and taught today.  It's doubtful that contemporary Topeka or any other comparably sized city will produce a similar number of great writers.

James claims,
Our society is very, very good at developing certain types of skills and certain types of genius. We are fantastically good at identifying and developing athletic skills—better than we are, really, at almost anything else. We are quite good at developing and rewarding inventiveness. We are pretty good at developing the skills necessary to run a small business—a fast food restaurant, for example. We're really, really good at teaching people how to drive automobiles and how to find a coffee shop.

Here, James identifies some core elements of American's perceptions about themselves.  They are doers not observers or readers.  They want the newest and the fastest toys.  Above all, they want to make a little money.  In this paragraph, James gives us sports and fast food, America's version of bread and circuses.

Although James seems to understand baseball stats and Americans' psyche, his explanation for the dearth of contemporary writers seems to miss the boat
It is simply because we don't need them. We still have Shakespeare. We still have Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson; their books are still around. We don't genu­inely need more literary geniuses. One can only read so many books in a lifetime. We need new athletes all the time because we need new games every day—fudging just a little on the definition of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a constant and endless flow of games, we need a constant flow of athletes. We have gotten to be very, very good at developing the same.

I love the classics as much as most people.  I agree with C.S. Lewis's reason to read the classics.  "Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook. . . ."

Lewis even gives a practical method for reading old books.  "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones."

Even with those caveats, I believe we always need new stories or old stories in new clothes.  Despite his conclusion that we have enough great writers, James must agree.  He offers several lessons that Americans can learn from sports.  These suggestions would apply to scientists, doctors, or writers.
American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes' success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they're still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.
I'm unsure whether Americans are willing to pay writers for their potential.  I'm also not sure that Americans are willing to pay engineers or scientists for their potential either.  James acknowledges this fact, but he reminds us that
We are very good at producing athletes, and maybe we are too good at producing athletes. Some­times the cost is too high. We should do more to develop the next Shakespeare and less to develop the next Justin Verlander.

But this situation is not a failing of the sporting world. Rather, it is that the rest of society has been too proud to follow our lead.

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