The Director’s Chair – February 2017

Let’s face it: we know little of our own history. In an era when some people cannot identify the current Vice-President of the United States, never mind the name of the Secretary-General of the United Nations or the current Chancellor of Germany, it is not surprising that some of the major historical figures, both famous and infamous, have become less distinct in our collective memory. One of the reasons I read authors such as Clive James and Tony Judt is the intelligent ‘conversation’ they engender between writer and reader. Like good teachers, their writing arouses curiosity. I have been extensively educated (which has made me very good at certain trivia games), but I had never run into Manes Sperber, Leszek Kolakowsi, or Egon Friedell until I listened to Tony Judt (see below). Alternately, I admit that I do not know much about baseball, so I have spent February brushing up on a lot of things. Below is a list of a few of them so, play ball!


What I read, watched or listened to:

Red Harvest   [HAMMETT]
Hammett, Dashiell

History of Baseball in 100 Objects: a Tour Through the bats, balls, uniforms, awards, documents, and Other Artifacts That Tell the Story of the National Pastime   [796.357 LEV]
Leventhal, Josh

Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
Judt, Tony  (available on audio through Hoopla)

Voronezh Notebooks   [Poetry 891.713 MAN]
Mandel’stam, Osip


“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.” So begins the story of the Continental Op coming to town and blowing the place wide open in Hammett’s Red Harvest.

The Continental Op (short for operative) was Hammett’s (author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) most durable creation, appearing as he does in two of his novels (the other is the Dain Curse) and in numerous short stories. He is described as short, pudgy and calculating; the perfect hard-boiled detective to come out of the pulp fiction detective genre of the 1920s and 30s.

Red Harvest was Hammett’s first novel and in some ways it shows. The action is lean and powerful at the beginning, but as the story progresses it gets bogged down in Hammett’s ultimately successful attempt to clarify his convoluted storyline. There is a high body count here, but most of the action happens away from the narrator, mainly because it is the result of the Op’s machinations.

Personville was a dirty town and someone had to clean it up. The Op was hired to do so after his original employer was gunned down before he even got to meet him. What follows happens fast and furious; it is a fun ride, but could have been improved with a bit more detail. One has to wonder if there are still small towns out there just like Personville. As an introduction to Hammett’s work, a reader could do no better.

Poetry can be very tricky to translate. This is because, at its best, poetry is language pared down to its essence. It can involve the reader emotionally or intellectually or visually, or any combination of the three. Reading poetry requires patience and imagination and concentration. It requires taking the time to read slowly. It is also meant to be heard aloud, and you can find plenty in downloadable audio through Hoopla and Overdrive (accessed through the library’s website).

Osip Mandel’stam (1891-1938) was a Russian writer who lived through some of the more turbulent times of twentieth century Russian history and who ultimately fell victim to the autocratic paranoia of Josef Stalin. As a poet, he is considered by many to be world-class. The reason why many English readers have never heard of him is because his work is especially difficult to translate. Good poetry can be particularly difficult to move from one language to another; great poetry, almost impossible.

Voronezh is a small town south of Moscow, essentially in the middle of nowhere. It was a good place to put internal exiles, which is why the Mandel’stams ended up there in 1935 after Mandel’stam’s arrest. The Notebooks were composed between 1935 and 1937, after which the couple was allowed to return to Moscow. Mandel’stam was arrested again after returning to Moscow and was sent to Siberia. He was never heard from again. No one knows when or where he died.

It was just luck that Mandel’stam’s poetry from the Voronezh Notebooks even survived. He was a literary star in the twenties, persecuted by Stalin during the thirties, and forced to live by doing translations. It was his wife, Nadezhda, who memorized his poetry while in exile, in order to ensure its survival. These days, it is good to remember that words have power over autocrats and that poetry can be more of a weapon than any bullets (the Russian have known this for a long time).

“When a child first begins to smile
The bitter and the sweet part company,
And the sober limits of that smile
Open, oceanic, into anarchy.”

“I’ll marvel at the world a little more,
The kids, the snow,
But like a road, a smile’s authentic,
Disobedient, no whore.”

We should make a point of embracing poetry. It forces the reader to slow down and think. Mandel’stam’s poetry puts the reader right in the middle of his exile, his ability to connect without a filter to the world around him. These poems are not about great events in history. They tell the story of one intelligent man’s survival in a world made hostile by politics. Andrew Davis did a marvelous job of translating them.


Given how American baseball is considered, it is interesting that the History of Baseball in 100 Objects goes all the way back to 1301 to begin its story, and then reaches even further into history: “References to ancient Egyptians playing stick-and-ball games can be traced to about 2400 BCE as part of religious rites and also simply for fun.” It took America to make it a religion again.

Every lover of the game really should own a copy of this book, rich as it is in the mystique and lore of America’s national pastime. Though the first 50 pages or so linger on the pre-history of pro ball (Did Abner Doubleday really invent baseball?), the real action begins with the Cincinnati Red Stockings Game Ball from 1869 and goes all the way to the World Baseball Classic Championship Trophy of 2013. Along the way we are shown “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s shoes, the home run crown of the immortal Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th hit bat from 1972 and, my favorite, the National League Championship Series ticket of 1969 (the New York Mets won the series that year).

I am not a big fan of baseball, so I learned a lot from this book. Though the Negro Baseball League was active in the 1930’s, the first black player played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the 1880’s. Ball parks only began to use lighting after 1935. The first televised game was August 26, 1939 and AstroTurf was first put in use in 1966.

If you are a student of the game, you might know most of the information in this book, but the illustrations alone make it worth perusing. Baseball has had a significant impact on the American psyche. It is a game we may have forgotten how to ‘play’ in recent years. We should relearn.

Tony Judt’s Reappraisals is more than just a reprint of book reviews and articles that first appeared in newspapers or journals. In it, he expresses his purpose as bringing the past “into sharper focus.” The reason, as he saw it, was: “Not only did we fail to learn very much from the past—this would hardly have been remarkable. But we have become stridently insistent—in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities—that the past has nothing of interest to teach us. Ours, we insist, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but explaining why requires readers giving careful consideration to his words and connecting the dots. History may be taught as a series of wars and dates, but it is actually made by personalities and thinkers, many of whom most of us have never heard.

Arthur Koestler was a political theorist and writer. He was once a communist (as were a few of Judt’s subjects in this book), which may explain why he is seldom spoken of these days. The author of such minor classics as The Ghost in the Machine and The Sleepwalkers, he did produce one lasting work of greatness, Darkness at Noon. Still, his impact on Zionism and Communism in the mid-twentieth century was felt equally via his presence as well as his writings.

Primo Levi was an Italian writer and chemist (is he well-known in this country?) who wrote eloquently of his experiences as a witness during World War II. “Like all such witnesses, of course, he wrote both to record what had happened and to free himself from it (and was driven forward be the sense that he was doomed to fail on both counts).” His testimonies highlight the benefits of revisiting historical, social and political movements.

Manes Sperber was a Jew from the shtetl who became an intellectual and a Communist in Germany in the 1930s. He wrote a three volume autobiography and his experiences show that then, as now, society and history are always in flux and that security is often an illusion. Sperber was, “constantly tempted by “knowledge,” only to shrink away from it, wary of its illusory quality, skeptical about its philosophical and historical adequacy.” He shared not only his Jewishness with these other individuals, but also the struggle for cosmopolitanism, intellectualism, and sanity in a world racing ahead of them.

These three, along with others (e.g. Hannah Arendt, Eric Hobshawn, Leszek Kolakowski), make the case for Judt: “The extermination of the past—by design, by neglect, by good intention—is what characterizes the history of our time. That is why the ahistorical memory of a marginal community that found itself in the whirlwind may yet be the best guide to our era.” Shining a spotlight on various moments as he does (e.g. France in 1940, Israel in 1967), Judt is able to lead the reader deeply into his subject. By doing so, he illustrates not only his own deep knowledge of his subjects, but also the vital uses of such knowledge. The world is a complicated place.

The only way to make sense of the world today is to read. Read newspapers, histories, novels, and even some websites. Challenge preconceived notions. Hold ideas up to scrutiny. There is evil in the world, but it is rarely pure. There is good in the world, but it is rarely innocent. Lift every rock. You may be surprised what you find underneath.