Thursday, September 9, 2010

James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend (2010)

One of the most interesting attributes of the human mind is memory. We know that the brains of other animals have memory capabilities, but nothing of the magnitude of the human brain, and its capacity to store information. Eric Kandel's wonderful memoir, In Search of Memory, documents that we know much about the biological basis of human memory, and more to be learned. But there is an equally important story about the capability of humans to engineer memory outside of the mind --- information storage devices, if you will, that have extended the information storage capacity of the human mind. Language is certainly the critical enabling tool of this capability (see August 31, 2009 post), but whereas speech is a means of transmitting information, writing is the earliest means of storing the information, and tablets, paper, and books become functional information storage devices that extended human memory capacity beyond the capabilities of the human mind. And now electronic information storage devices such as the hard drive on the computer I am typing on, and a server connected to the Internet where this blog is stored somewhere in a "cloud," are extending our information storage capacity even more. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was because I could no longer recall precisely when I read a certain book, and I was reading so much on a diverse set of subjects I was not always able to recall satisfactorily much of what the book was about after a lengthy period of time had passed.

So what does memory and information storage devices have to do with this biography of a major league baseball player, who is probably the greatest all-around baseball player to this date? It is not the first biography written about Willie Mays, and it is not the first biography of Willie Mays that I have read. But, like any book, this book adds to our collective memory about a part of history --- certainly American athletic history, and American cultural history, but as is the case with many other baseball biographies --- such as Jane Leavy's biography of Sandy Koufax or David Maraniss' biography of Roberto Clemente or David Halberstam's October 1964 --- it adds to our collective memory about American racial history and identifies baseball as one of the cultural aspects of American life that clawed away at the racial divides in America. But, for me, this book was much more, because it also triggered memories in my mind --- of the times I attended many baseball games at Candlestick Park in San Francisco where Willie Mays played the game for the last 12 or so years of his career. I was at the 1961 All-Star game, which is memorialized in this book, when Stu Miller was blown off the pitcher's mound, and I was at Willie's final game (in a New York Mets uniform) at Candlestick Park when he grounded out in his final at bat, which is also memoralized in this book. I have a photograph, yet another information storage device, of that final at-bat. And I can recall where I was during the broadcast of the Giants-Dodgers game when Juan Marichal struck John Roseboro over the head --- memorialized in this book because Willie was credited with taking Roseboro, his opponent, to safety to protect from further injury. And I can recall listening to the radio and hearing the broadcast of Willie McCovey's line drive into the glove of Bobby Richardson to end the 7th game of the 1962 World Series, which is also memorialized in this biography, and much, much more.

As technology improves, our mechanical information storage devices have the capability of becoming more permanent, more durable. As the previous post about the Gospel of Judas demonstrates, ancient written texts that were not transcribed and retranscribed over centuries can easily be lost --- because the elements have destroyed them or they are hidden in places not easily found centuries later. Only through luck is this lost information retrieved. And through the act of retranscribing --- through the later acts of redactors and editors or through careless copying or mistranslation --- those texts that are "saved" still suffer from an information loss. In fact, when we read texts written long ago, the information on the page has likely lost some or all of its meaning, because we do not always appreciate the context in which a particular text was written or whether the author was trying to be literally accurate, facetious, fictitious, or ironic when he wrote the words on the page.

We have means of addressing these problems today. For example, we label information as "fiction" or "non-fiction;" we label information as "biographical" or "historical fiction;" and we label information as "science" or "science fiction." In works of non-fiction, there are standards in the publishing industry for documenting the facts as reported and even the basis of opinions stated. And in most parts of the world there is less political control over information today than ever before: there is a culture of literary criticism and scientific criticism and historical criticism that marginalizes factual and historical misinformation that fails to stand the test of time if it has no support. This is less true of works like The Bible, which is both fiction and non-fiction, and even the non-fiction portion we cannot be sure of because it was edited and redacted by people who, at the time, enjoyed political power and used and edited the text to further a particular political aim, and they exercised political power to suppress those who did not agree with the information in the official text. James Hirsch's biography of Willie Mays documents its sources and occasionally passes judgment on competing memories of this era in American baseball found in diverse sources, and he informs us when that judgment of competing facts is rendered. It will not require "faith" or "belief" to support its authenticity and refresh our memory.

Still, we must be wary of disinformation and the control of information by political powers. We are not yet at a stage in human history where every piece of newly stored information is authentic or certifiable.

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