Because of the cool and cooling temperatures, the colours of the leaves, the distinct smell in the air, and other reasons, fall is my favourite time of year. It comes with a price, though, and not just the assassination of our senses by the presence of pumpkin-themed everything wherever we turn. The beginning of fall marks the end of the baseball season, and for non-football fans like me, we stare into a sports abyss that won’t go away until opening day 2020, slated for the end of March. Naturally I am talking about American “football” fans. Leave it to us Yanks to call a game “football” where feet connect with the ball about 20 times in a 60-minute game. I like to wonder what we would call baseball if the Brits were to call cricket—a game that is at least similar—“baseball.” A rather droll pastime, chaps. Quite.
It often comes as a surprise when people find out I’m a baseball fan. The response is almost always the same. “You like baseball? Really? You?” I get an even more vociferous reaction when people find out I’m married. “Someone married YOU?!!!?” I won’t pretend that didn’t sting at first, but after the next dozen or so times I got used to it. My wife loves it when she meets my friends; she’s treated like a celebrity. “So you’re his wife! I am so, so, so sorry.”
When I try to ask people why they are surprised I like baseball (I do understand their bewilderment I’m married, since I share it), their answer often sounds like this: “Well, you’re so into books and deep discussions and such.” Forgetting for a moment that I engage in the most inane (but usually pleasant) chatter with these people 95 percent of the time, I am left to wonder why someone who likes books can’t also like sports, and vice-versa. That explanation is simple enough, so I do not wonder too long: stereotypes.
Of course stereotypes exist for a reason, and to someone who doesn’t like sports or to someone who is a casual fan—and is thus likely to have an image burned into their brain of a shirtless blue-and-red man at a football game in Buffalo in a raging snowstorm—the evidence, if not ample, is compelling. Would a sane person really go half-naked to a sporting event in 30-below temperatures? Possibly to say they are “insane” is glib, but it’s fair to question that person’s relationship with thinking.
Sanity and a desire to read, however, do not always go together either. According to research carried out by Lisa Simpson, for example, “As intelligence goes up, happiness goes down.” Lisa even provides a graph for us. “I make lots of graphs,” she says. We will just use this one, Lisa, you poor put-upon middle child.
Happiness is not the same as sanity—Lisa Simpson perhaps lacks both—so it’s not so much a person who reads goes insane, but that a person chooses to read and get smarter (and therefore less happy) can also be said to have a tenuous grip on thinking.
Naturally I am guilty of the reverse phenomenon: I will find out someone who I hitherto only knew as a sports fan turns out also to like reading. Chances are slim that person reads what I do, but that’s ok, too. I don’t want to discuss Stephen King or Mitch Albom any more than he wants to discuss my literature choices. Nonetheless the mystery remains. Anecdotal evidence is all we have. As far as I know there are no studies of sports fans who like Thomas Hardy or Milan Kundera or Edith Wharton, or readers of Leo Tolstoy or Sylvia Plath or Jane Smiley who like sports.
Another interesting thing I have experienced, though not nearly as often, is what happens when I am discussing books with someone (also rare) and then try without success to have a conversation about, say, football (I admit I still follow college football, but baseball is my real sports love) with that same person. On more than one of those occasions I have been told “You’re a regular know-it-all, aren’t you?” without a trace of irony. There’s no real comeback I can offer—once a person thinks that way of you it’s almost impossible to change their mind. To be fair I have also heard a much more flattering way of saying that—“You’re pretty well-rounded, aren’t you?”—but that too is nonsense. All it means in either case is that I happen to like literature and also happen to know something about most sports. That kind of comment reveals more about the person saying it than anything else, so I am careful not to take too much offense.
On the other hand, both of those responses contain elements of the truth. Reading has expanded my knowledge base, and it has made me more well-rounded. The problem lies not with sports but with the perils of being an English major. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed when I ask a professed reader what they like to read and the answer is a popular writer. No, that is not accurate. It’s more disappointment that they only like popular writers. And because I am not someone who tries to tell people what they “have to read,” I don’t make recommendations. In the way a person’s shyness can be read as arrogance (I’m too good to engage with you), my reticence can be seen as a superiority complex (you’ll never even begin to understand, let alone like, my books). Both can be true, but in most cases neither are. Shyness can be just that, and a desire to read and enjoy high art can simply be a matter of taste. In any case, similar to the person above calling me a know-it-all, my disappointment at another’s reading life and failing to make recommendations says more about me than them.
There’s a reason people discuss the weather or the local sports team. They are safe points of reference. Literature and its discontents represent an esoteric body of knowledge, even as my personal body of knowledge has grown. I don’t mean to say it’s more or less important than other esoteric topics. The paradox for me is that I let slip in ordinary conversations this quote or that author, this book I’m reading or have read, and am almost always met with a blank stare at best, or those rare moments noted above, when someone out-and-out calls me a snob. The perpetual self-doubt inherent in being an artist makes me wonder if more people think that but are too decent to call me out on it. But I truly can’t help myself. When we are at a gathering or sometimes even just alone, my wife will point out that “nobody knows who Milan Kundera is, let alone cares about him.” It’s not showing off or anything vain. It’s just a passion coming thru, no less important than a football fan discussing the Patriots. The truth is I freely admit to being a snob when it comes to literature and language. I do try to read the best that’s been written, in all fields, and I do have certain criteria. I am not ashamed at that, any more than I am ashamed at being an artist who also likes sports, any more than someone who loves football should be ashamed.
How a passion for reading and critical thinking makes me and other like-minded people “elitists” is something I have never understood, however, and never will. It seems a great leap to suggest that someone who takes learning seriously and values education is therefore incapable of liking sports or caring about what happens to someone whose vision of life is radically different. But I understand how people can be put into a corner, any corner, like that. Speaking strictly of the arts, it’s no wonder writers and artists stick to their own milieu when it comes to socialising and sharing opinions. It’s not that, as a group, they are more interesting or better than any other group that has something in common. It’s that they, quite simply, get each other.
Reading is one of the few solitary acts we have left, especially for those of us who live in urban areas. Writing is even more solitary, perhaps more than any art. More specifically, choosing to live a life based in words—in as much as it can be called a choice—is to choose a certain form of loneliness, a life all too often trapped between the ears. And oh my. What a mess between those ears. For the people who rightly pity my wife for having to put up with me, I offer this: if you think it’s difficult for her, imagine my plight. I am me.