This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, February 4, 2022.
As happens each year at this time when voting for the baseball Hall of Fame is complete, a fierce debate is set off, not about the people who may have been voted into the Hall of Fame but about those who did not make it. This year’s debate centers on two people, extraordinary baseball stars Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. The debate has been intense because, according to the rules of voting, this was the last year that each could appear on the ballot for the Hall of Fame.
The athletic achievements of both Clemens and Bonds are not in doubt. They were men who dominated the game of baseball during the time that they played. Barry Bonds hit more home runs than anyone has ever hit. Roger Clemens’ pitching achievements are unmatched in either modern or historic times. By any measure of their baseball statistics, they should have been first ballot entries into the Hall.
The problem for each, of course, is that they used substances banned by Major League Baseball while they were playing. These substances supposedly gave them an advantage over those who followed the rules. Some argue that it automatically excludes them from consideration for baseball’s highest honor. Others argue that their achievements were so extraordinary that their failures to follow the rules of fair play that baseball had set up should not apply. I have my own opinions about all of that, but those opinions are neither important nor compelling.
What strikes me the most about the situation is a feeling of overwhelming sadness. When both of these athletes began playing in the major leagues, it was apparent to all that they were beginning what baseball aficionados term as “Hall of Fame careers.” Somewhere along the way, each made a decision to break the rules, to attempt to gain unfair advantage. Each athlete had his reasons for doing so, I do not know for sure what those reasons were. As far as I know, neither has discussed that publicly. So I decline to speculate.
Instead, I am simply left with a feeling that all of this debate and controversy could have been avoided. Each athlete could have achieved their Hall of Fame plaque by simply doing what they could do better than anyone else who was playing the game. They chose a different path, and their disgrace—even if they eventually attain Hall of Fame status—will never leave them.
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The Gilded Age: the novel, not the television series
The Gilded Age, HBO’s lavishly produced and extensively advertised series, takes its title from a book published in 1873, but it is at that point that the connection ends. The book was co-authored by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner.
Twain and Warner were friends and neighbors who lived close to one another in Hartford, Connecticut. Their families knew each other well, and they often shared the dinner table at one house or another.
It was at one of those dinners when Twain and Warner were complaining about the novels that were in vogue at the time. They offered a variety of criticisms with what one of Twain’s biographers calls “the usual freedom and severity of dinner table talk.” The wives of the two men took some exception to these opinions, and so they challenged their husbands to write something for the American reader that would be better.
The challenge was accepted by both men, and they agreed to do a novel together.
Warner had not achieved the fame of his friend, but he was a credible partner in the effort. He had practiced law in Chicago from 1856 to 1860, when he moved to Hartford to become assistant editor of one of the newspapers there. Eventually, he joined the staff of Harper’s Magazine and wrote a regular and popular column for that publication for almost a decade. He wrote a variety of works for publication, including five novels.
The writing of The Gilded Age began immediately because Twain already had an idea about a story that he was considering. He wanted to write something about a character of his youth, his mother’s cousin, and let that character be in the middle of a situation with which he, the author, could have a lot of fun.
The plan was for Twain to write the first chapters of the book and for Warner to write the subsequent chapters. Twain started writing immediately, and Warner would come over occasionally and listen to Twain as he read those chapters aloud.
After understanding where Twain was going with his story, Warner started writing his portion of the novel. It actually turned out to be a separate story, but the two eventually collaborated on how the whole book would end. The division of labor in the novel was more or less equal.
A third companion was taken into this writing fold. He was J. Hammond Trumbull, and he prepared some cryptographic chapter headings, which the original authors thought might lend some entertainment and some erudition to what they were writing. Ultimately, however, they were disappointed in what Trumbull produced.
The book was begun in February, and it was finished by April. The result was two separate stories, but it made for delightful reading for the American public at the time. The story mixes romance and tragedy together with the protagonists never quite achieving what they set out to accomplish.
The title of the book comes from William Shakespeare’s play King John. The reference means “wasteful and ridiculous excess.” The book is full of satirical observations of the political and social life of Washington, D.C. Much of what the book contains in that regard is still relevant today.
According to Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s biographer:
The authors regarded their work highly when it was finished, but that is nothing. Any author regards his work highly at the moment of its completion. In later years neither of them thought very well of their production; but that also is nothing. The author seldom cares very deeply for his offspring once it is turned over to the public charge. The fact that the story is still popular, still delights thousands of readers, when a myriad of novels that have been written since it was completed have lived their little day and died so utterly that even their names have passed out of memory, is the best verdict as to its worth.
The book provided a title for the age of the late 19th century. It was an age of the accumulation of great wealth and its ostentatious display. It was indeed an apt title.
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce: Optimist, Oratory, Orphan, Orthodox
OPTIMIST, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.
A pessimist applied to God for relief.
“Ah, you wish me to restore your hope and cheerfulness,” said God.
“No,” replied the petitioner, “I wish you to create something that would justify them.”
“The world is all created,” said God, “but you have overlooked something—the mortality of the optimist.”
ORATORY, n. A conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding. A tyranny tempered by stenography.
ORPHAN, n. A living person whom death has deprived of the power of filial ingratitude—a privation appealing with a particular eloquence to all that is sympathetic in human nature. When young the orphan is commonly sent to an asylum, where by careful cultivation of its rudimentary sense of locality it is taught to know its place. It is then instructed in the arts of dependence and servitude and eventually turned loose to prey upon the world as a bootblack or scullery maid.
ORTHODOX, n. An ox wearing the popular religious yoke.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Best-seller lists: let the buyer beware
To know anything about publishing is to know that best-seller lists are not always what they appear to be.
Recently there surfaced a story from Great Britain that WH Smith, one of the nation’s largest booksellers, has been publishing a list determined at least in part by whether or not a book had been boosted in a deal with publishers, according to industry insiders.
A former WH Smith employee has blown the whistle on a practice that had the retailer instructing employees to display Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores regardless of its sales figures. Penguin Random House, the publishers, had paid for such a space.
Here’s part of the story:
“When the last Richard Osman came out, Penguin bought the number one spot on all WH Smith in-store bestseller charts so it had to be displayed as the bestseller in every single store, whether it actually was or not,” Barry Pierce, who worked at the retailer from 2020 to 2021, recently claimed on social media.
Mr. Pierce and his colleagues received “no data or rubric to follow” when putting together their bestseller chart when he worked at WH Smith, the former sales associate told iNews, a news website in Great Britain.
Instead, the chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push”, and was treated as a “promotional space” rather than a “legitimate chart” based on which books were selling the most copies, he claimed. (https://inews.co.uk/news/whsmith-bestselling-book-chart-rankings-publishers-paid-feature-1415545?ITO=newsnow)
Publishers generally charge more for books listed as best-sellers, so the investment in getting a book on the best-seller list can pay big dividends.
So, book buyers beware: Not all best-seller lists are what they seem.
The special relationship of people and horses
If you are someone who rides horses or who thinks of horses as among the most graceful and beautiful animals on earth, Janet Jones has things to say that you will want to hear.
Jones is a neuroscientist who studies perception, language, memory, and thought. She also trains horses and has become a keen observer of the relationships between horses and humans. Here’s part of an article by her that appeared recently in Aeon magazine:
No one disputes the athleticism fuelling these triumphs (described in a previous paragraph in the article), but few people comprehend the mutual cross-species interaction that is required to accomplish them. The average horse weighs 1,200 pounds (more than 540 kg), makes instantaneous movements, and can become hysterical in a heartbeat. Even the strongest human is unable to force a horse to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Nor do good riders allow the use of force in training our magnificent animals. Instead, we hold ourselves to the higher standard of motivating horses to cooperate freely with us in achieving the goals of elite sports as well as mundane chores. Under these conditions, the horse trained with kindness, expertise and encouragement is a willing, equal participant in the action. Aeon Magazine: Becoming a centaur.
Even to those of us who do not consider ourselves equestrians, Jones’ article is interesting and instructive.
Jones identifies three aspects of the way the horse’s brain works that make them especially at one with humans:
– their touch perception is highly sensitive;
– body language is their principal means of communication;
– horses can actively learn human cues and can do so quickly.
This is a fascinating article with a saddle-load of insights—relevant even if you have never been on top of (or in my case, lying on the ground next to) a horse.
Finally . . .
This week’s pen and ink: Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh
Best quote of the week:
To bear up under loss, to fight the bitterness of defeat and the weakness of grief, to be victor over anger, to smile when tears are close, to resist evil men and base instincts, to hate hate and to love love, to go on when it would seem good to die, to seek ever after the glory and the dream, to look up with unquenchable faith in something evermore about to be, that is what any man can do, and so be great. Zane Grey, author (1872-1939)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The NYC caricaturist, Norman Rockwell changes direction, and a thought about incarceration: newsletter, January 28, 2022
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