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On the Lonely Game

Do I enjoy scholarly writing?  Do I profit from scholarly writing?  My questioner at the watering hole was hoping for  negatives, and he got them.  I told him that there are few such works wherein one can find writing (and thinking) worthy of the name, so I don't gravitate to them much, although some I still read out of duty.  For the sake of love (and therefore instruction) I look to real writing--for no profit grows where no pleasure is taken--and this comes in essay forms or storytelling.  The fact that I cannot myself do it well, doesn't deny me the pleasure of loving it when done by another.  This Diana Schaub essay, "America at the Bat," might be a perfect example of something so lovable; an essay on baseball, but, also on, well, just about everything important. I will not attempt to say more about it other than to say you should both read it and then thank Diana.
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Most scholarly writing is dry and hardly worth reading for the actual writing (though at times for the content). I like thoughtful scholarship, and use the scholarly "literature" as they say (though it is usually hardly the case) for my own popular books. It's such a shame that most academics pen books for tenure and for the half a dozen people in their specialized field rather than for a wider educated audience. Then, they bemoan the fact that people are ignorant of their field but have rarely written books that people would actually want to read. They have themselves to blame for their inaccessible books. These days, as my years/decades on this earth grow fewer, I would not pick up an academic book unless I have to.

Remember Dodger outfielder Rick Monday's greatest play?

That was a charming essay. I have read some of Schaub's more serious, maybe scholarly, writing and she is just good at writing.

I only loved baseball when watching my boys play it in Little League. I was so grateful to the coaches who gave up their time; I still stop them and thank them when I see them around town. My husband has never liked sports and forced himself to come to one game for each boy every season. I was a Little League mom, or a soccer mom, as the boy required and loved the games because I loved the boys who loved the games. My baseball boys were not very good, but only had practice outside of the team ones with me and I threw too much like a girl to be much use. Soccer can be practiced alone in the yard or against a wall, or at least that was how my soccer boy got good at it.

As to scholarly writing, perhaps Dr. Schramm necessarily reads too much poor work of the sort while doing his job. There is good and well-written scholarly work out there; I have read some rare gems. Yes, I have read plenty of unreadable efforts, as well. As I understand my program, Dr. Schramm may have to read my scholarly writing (when I get around to finishing it, written in intervals between a pressing real life) and feel shame at the probability of boring him with it. Scholarly work is a slog and hard to write wel -- interestingly. That much of it is a formality, for tenure or for a degree, makes inaccessibility more or less the point. The required style begs for tedium and redundancy. Yes, I guess I hate it, too.

Tony, do you think those scholarly topics could be written about for a larger audience? People will reach for biography before they will reach for topical books simply because a person is more interesting than an idea. History is more accessible to the average reader through people, biography, because of the pleasure of getting to know an interesting person. If there were a way to introduce an idea like a person -- I can imagine the concept but not the reality of the writing.

Kate, I think that what you're saying is true about historical biography, and not necessarily a bad thing. And, there are some great scholarly . . . or perhaps, very thoughtful and insightful books written by serious people . . . books out there. But, my guess is that if you thumbed through a catalog of dissertations or university press stuff, you wouldn't even understand half the titles, and no one in their right mind would pick it up (at outrageous prices) to cuddle up by the fireplace and a cup of something warm.

I get the titles (as seen through the college library websites) and know to stay away from all but what pertains to my research. I corresponded with one young author whose work I liked on JQA and rhetoric. That was a slim volume, outrageously priced and available in only a handful of college libraries in the state, not just on account of the price, but because only someone like me, studying the subject, would be interested. Given the way I buy books, it cost more than a whole shelf of mine. She said the publisher set the price, knowing who was likely to purchase, i.e. just about no one. Even though I liked what the author wrote and I actually did cuddle up with it, liking JQA that much, I cannot imagine anyone I know doing the same. This is to say that I basically agree and think that subjects like the sexual significance of Navaho basket weaving designs (!) or even a dissertation on road-building techniques of the early American colonists are unlikely ever to find a wider audience, which is often just as well.

I would say that this essay from Schaub is a shining example of exactly what it is that academic writing ought to do. I say "academic" because I am afraid that for most people, even an essay as lovely as this one is considered "academic" in both the ordinary sense (i.e., too difficult at first blush) and, unfortunately, also in the more literal sense (i.e., great mental exercise, but not of much "practical" use). This really is too bad, because Schaub has a fine mind and it is here (and, indeed, in most other places) encased in a work of beauty.

On the other hand, this essay, while not immediately appealing to a mind unused to such bright paths, accomplishes the very difficult task of repaying the effort of the unlikely traveler who, despite dim vision and general disinclination, is yet able to persevere long enough (perhaps with hands outstretched to avoid hazards in the path . . . or perhaps with the assistance of a guide dog) to find the finish line. Moreover, it invites further contemplation and welcomes such readers to return to the effort by gradually adding to their powers of vision--revealing some here, some there and suggesting ever more enticing rewards for the mind's eye.

I tried reading it to a fellow I know who loves both baseball and politics but is, in no sense, anything like an academic. His reaction to it was exactly what it ought to have been . . . he was not "impressed" in the sense of thinking it a pretty thing beyond him, but he was struck by it as a thing above the ordinary that he might confront and ask to justify itself. And because he did not feel compelled either to go to sleep or to interrupt, he listened and he argued--commenting that this must be a very intelligent woman, but maybe she's not the final word in the matter. Of course she's not! She was inviting him to discover his own words (while, of course, suggesting some of her own and planting seeds for future cultivation). It was an opportunity for learning and contemplation and, beyond that, a moment of discovery for him that such learning is not a thing beyond him . . . it is possible, it is valuable in and of itself (and maybe, also, in a more political sense), and above all it was deeply exciting.

I think it worked because the essay was so obviously written with love and because it gives the reader--if not something new to love--then perhaps something even better: another (and higher) reason to love something that the reader's good sense had already inclined him to appreciate.

This is what teachers are supposed to do in the classroom and what all academic writing that is worthy of the appellation ought to do; it ought to convey a love for the subject--whatever the subject is--and, in so doing, it should invite the student or the reader (though, really, they are one in the same) to discover his own reasons for loving a thing worthy of the effort. Academic writing ought to justify itself. Schaub appears to be a master of that art.

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