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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bill James and the lemur

So did Bill James see a lemur prowling the streets of Boston or didn't he? I loved the tack that Ben McGrath takes in his New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about James's mysterious sighting... but it seemed halfway finished. Why did it end when it did? Actually, I don't want my question from the first sentence to answered; I don't mean that we should have found out at the end whether James had indeed seen a lemur. But if McGrath is going to make the connection between James's search for the lemur and his search for sometimes elusive stats about, say, clutch hitting, then he needs to follow through on his swing. So James needs to combine information from multiple sources--cryptozoology blogs, newspaper archives, personal accounts, and queries to others who might have seen the lemur? And that's in some ways similar to crunching data in new ways or making projections which others may ridicule? I like it.

But I want more!

It may be that I'm teaching Melville's Moby-Dick right now and can't think of much else--maybe a monomania--but McGrath's story seemed like a small, funny version of the book, which I'm teaching as being about recombining multiple forms of information in an attempt to grasp something elusive. With James's sabermetrics in mind, you can think of Ahab's retracing over his charts to try to predict the location of a single whale and his insistence that prediction is possible by recombining data in heretofore untried ways. Or there's the narrative style itself, as Melville describes his project as necessarily gigantic because the scope of the subject cannot be contained:
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

Last fall, Levi Stahl wrote a great appreciation of James's expansive style that reminds me of what one could say about Melville's 'placard capitals' (James is writing about C.C. Sabathia):
James is a writer who would benefit from a good editor, yet he rarely seems to work under one: he's as perceptive as anyone who's ever written about the game and has a knack for a memorable phrases, but his writing frequently threatens to become too casual for the ideas it's trying to convey. Here, though, his breathless tone is perfectly suited to his subject, and it hits exactly the note I find myself striving for when describing favorite players.

So I wanted more of an ending than this from McGrath's article:
“I decided to report the sighting, against the urgings of my wife, who thought that I would get a reputation as a nut,” James explained in a recent e-mail. “I assume, if people start making fun of me for seeing a lemur, other people will step forward and say, ‘I saw something, too.’ ” No such luck yet.

Andrew Mudge, when reached by phone recently, assumed the call to be a prank. “Let me get this straight: you’re calling me about the lemur I saw in 2002?” he asked. “Which one of my friends put you up to this?” Mudge then recalled that he’d received an e-mail from a man named Bill James, but hadn’t paid it much attention. “I just remember having this gut feeling that this animal does not belong in this part of the world,” he wrote in an e-mail, thinking back to his sighting. “Ironically, I was leaving the house to go to a Red Sox game when this happened.”

Or, maybe it's a fitting ending to a story about uncertainty of knowledge (and sightings, and coordinating information from multiple sources): someone else doesn't share the same enthusiasm and chalks up the strangeness to a coincidence rather than something greater.

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Blogger Levi Stahl on Tue Jul 29, 09:59:00 PM:
This post made me laugh because, bizarrely enough, last night, despite not knowing about the New Yorker piece (our New Yorkers arrive late here in the Midwest), I thought about:

1 Bill James, because he loves
2 C. C. Sabathia, who was pitching in the baseball game I was watching,
3 Lemurs, because I'd just learned that Byron had one, and
4 Moby-Dick, because I was trying to draw on my love of its sprawling immensity to make me more receptive to the potential charms of Infinite Jest, which I was reading.

And I love that reading of Moby-Dick as "recombining multiple forms of information in an attempt to grasp something elusive." Such a helpful way to think about it!
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jul 30, 12:10:00 PM:
Bill James is on 'shrooms. The weasel, fisher, of skinny racoon he saw was not a ring-tailed lemur.

Another place where lemurs and baseball come together is our myspace music page -- where you can literally hear a song about lemurs, the 2004 Red Sox, and the pre-roids scandal Sammy Sosa. It's all there, baby!
Blogger Alice on Wed Jul 30, 02:40:00 PM:
I'm teaching Moby-Dick and Gravity's Rainbow together in a class about the encyclopedic novel. My dad suggested that I replace Pynchon with David Foster Wallace. So maybe DFW gets more readable with Melville in mind?