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Baseball & Literature

October 30, 2008

After celebrating the Phillies’ World Series wrap-up last night (!!!), I’m catching up on reading today and came across a piece on the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame by J. Peder Zane, the Ideas Columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer and one of the most thoughtful writers on literature I know. There’s a tie-in between the two parts of my lead sentence here: In the article, “Appreciating Our Literary Giants,” Zane compares the Literary Hall of Fame to the Baseball Hall of Fame, particularly focussing on a couple of North Carolina’s own baseball greats, in a way that opens up our perspectives not only on the state’s writers but also on the immortality of literature in general. Here’s a quick excerpt:

What is the purpose of a hall of fame? To answer those questions I thought about how Weymouth [the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, home to the Literary Hall of Fame] differs from that famous hall in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Young baseball fans can hear about Buck Leonard’s towering home runs and Catfish Hunter’s legendary control on the mound. They can memorize every statistic from those brilliant careers. But fans can never truly know what it was like to see those splendid Tar Heel ballplayers in their primes.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is like a message from the past to the present that says: Trust us, we saw them, they were the very best.

Our writers, by contrast, are ageless — their books, that is, if not their bodies.

One hundred years from now readers will still be able to see [James] Applewhite, [William] Powell and [Lee] Smith at the top of their games. A flick of a book cover — or the power switch on some high-tech device — will transport them into the immortal worlds the writers created.

Tomorrow’s readers will not need us to tell them what they can see and feel for themselves. They will know that greatness firsthand. The power of the writer’s work ensures its posterity….

The analogy isn’t entirely fool-proof, of course. In some cases, to read an author from today’s perspective is to miss the full weight of the impact that author may have had on his or her times. Look (for an easy example) at two writers whose careers began in the 1920s: Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett. Reading either man’s works, today’s readers may well see some genius there, but they may not completely recognize how radically these two men impacted the style of American letters and even changed (forever) American language — and I don’t think that’s too much of an overstatement. We’re accustomed to those styles now; we may even find them clichéd. But at the time….

Still, Zane’s point is a good one — and an encouragement to North Carolina readers to explore the riches of the state’s long literary history, as well as an encouragement to all of us to dust of those classics and rediscover the greatness always among us.

Another good link: C.M. Mayo, today’s guest blogger for The Writer’s Center, offers “Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop.” I think I should get my own students to take a look at this one.

— Art Taylor

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