That’s One Uncomfortable Switch-Hitter, and Other News


On the Shelf

A Topps trading card from the sixties.


  • Pity the switch-hitter, baseball’s ambidextrous magician, for he is divided against himself. Sure, he can hit right-handed, he can hit left-handed—he seems, on the face of it, a living testament to the falseness of binaries—but those gifts are taxing to the soul. What I’m trying to say is, it’s really, really hard to be a switch-hitter. Sam Anderson, reading the memoir of the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman Chipper Jones, finds it unexpectedly wise: “Switch-hitting requires constant struggle and discipline. The brain always wants to default to the familiar … So much of what is worthwhile requires us to choose discomfort: to learn a foreign language, speak to a stranger, resist the potato chips, start a difficult conversation with someone we love. Eking out even the smallest progress means repeatedly forcing ourselves to risk failure, disappointment, and humiliation. And so the sports memoir transforms into an accidental self-help manual: Living, like switch-hitting or flossing or answering our email, is a decision that we have to make over and over again.”
  • Selin Thomas moved to gentrifying Harlem with a “kind of guilt”—and she discovered from a ship’s manifest that her father’s grandparents, free blacks, had arrived to the same neighborhood more than a century earlier, a distance that haunts her and speaks to Harlem’s vexed and singular history: “Their nearest relative and friend in the U.S. is listed, an Afro-Caribbean man called Percy Edmead. The manifest shows they stayed with him, in a brownstone at 138 West 131st Street, ten blocks from my own apartment … In these square blocks are a fogged-up, choked-up pluralism and a potential born of the irony of the black American existence, both the resentment of the land of one’s birth and the need to identify with it. That—a split constitution—is the conflict within any descendant of America’s sordid oppression, but in Harlem this fantastic complexity is manifest in sharp relief. A man at 116th can sometimes be found screaming that he knows the smell of blood. A barbershop man called Morris Bone, perpetually unable to pay rent for all his sixty-plus years, is regarded by his grandchildren through the lens of their high degrees in social science. Women shrouded in black cloth but for their gated eyes, meeting yours, float by in groups of three and four … Harlem—this vortex—is more than ever that scene and symbol of the black American’s persistent and even inherent estrangement from his own country.”

  • In Chekhov, the doctor who became a writer whose “clinical humanism” launched the modern novel, Siddhartha Mukherjee sees a model for escaping our apathy: “What—how—shall we write during this time of numbness? … It is humbling to recall the breadth and depth of our literary debt to a thirty-year-old physician who set out to cure his anesthesia. The opposite of ‘anesthetic,’ we might recall, is ‘aesthetic’—a word that originally referred to whatever could be perceived or felt but that came to refer to the nature of beauty. Beauty, in all its myriad forms, can only be created in opposition to numbness. That, at least for me, serves as a quiet manifesto for our times.”
  • What happens when sharp critics write memoirs? If those critics are Lee Siegel and Daphne Merkin, they end up producing some of the finest books of their careers, Christian Lorentzen writes: “Merkin’s book is an essay turning over the question of why she sometimes wants to kill herself. Siegel’s tells the story of how he became what he is, a critic. Both books are haunted by other, unwritten books. Merkin cites ‘that Ur-document of unfulfilled creative talent,’ Cyril Connolly’s 1938 hybrid of criticism and memoir, Enemies of Promise. (One of those enemies is book reviewing.) But Merkin and Siegel grew up in what counts as a golden age of criticism—Wilson, Fiedler, Hardwick, Kenner—and came to occupy enviable perches in what seemed a diminished field, which then seemed to diminish further. But just as the novel is always dying, the literary sky is always falling, and yesterday’s wunderkind critics go on to become middle-aged memoirists reviewed by those who showed up after everything was supposedly already over … It wasn’t simple for these children of the baby boom, both of whom spent too much time as children reading about the Holocaust, to figure out how to tell the worst stories about themselves. They both know that the mirror is the place to be merciless.”
  • You could read regular Dracula. That’s fine. No one is going to tell you not to. Or you could read Icelandic Dracula, which came three years after the original and took some curious liberties with the story. Now finally translated into English, it plays with Stoker’s vision, Frida Isberg writes: “In 1986, the Dracula scholar Richard Dalby discovered an original preface to the Icelandic version; and in 2014, Hans Corneel de Roos, intrigued by the preface, found out that dramatic alterations had been made to the story itself. What is more, many of the plot’s mod­ifications fitted Stoker’s early preparatory notes for Dracula … Several new characters have been added to the story: a female deaf-mute housekeeper works in the castle … Instead of three female vampires, there is one—Josephine—who is yet harder to resist, and who succeeds in seducing and ‘kissing’ Thomas. And the climactic chase … happens in London, not Transylvania. Furthermore, Dracula is now a power-seeking villain with ambitions to make the world ‘bow before the strong ones,’ and representing ideas that resonate with Nietzsche’s master-slave morality.”