Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Summer reading

Posted by digglahhh on 7 July 2007

This week, I want to take some time to talk about two great books I’ve recently read. The first is about hip-hop, the second about sports.

Over the last few years, documenting the rise of hip-hop culture has become an increasingly popular subject to write about. I’ve read bits and pieces of many of books similar to this one, and I’ve dismissed even more by scanning the indexes and noticing the omissions of seminal figures. Remarkably, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005) by Jeff Chang avoids such limitations.

Chang’s book, a study in cultural anthropology, domestic and foreign policy and sociology, documents the origin and evolution of the hip-hop lifestyle, aesthetic, and music, all in context. He considers the political and cultural movements in Jamaica, the landscape of the Bronx gangs in the 1970’s, the growth and fracturing of the Black Panther party (through COINTELPRO) and the resulting emergence of the West Coast gang scene. He even describes the economic and geospatial ramifications of Robert Moses’s highway projects. These events and many others are discussed in terms of their role in the emergence and direction of hip-hop.

Chang also does a great job of framing some of the most important frictions within the culture. Although hip-hop is widespread and diverse, there have always been identity crises about what is actually encompassed in the culture, and what is the purpose of the movement. Does Basquiat count as a graffiti artist, since he never hit a subway train (even as “SAMO”)? Is graffiti even an element of the hip-hop culture? Many early generation writers were partial to rock music. Are rappers agents of social change, themselves? Should they, and can they, lead movements? Or, is their primary purpose to simply “report” about their experience? What sort of boundaries are there, and should there be regarding “belonging” to the culture? Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop addresses these issues and illustrates the way shifting perspectives led the culture in different directions, expanding its ranks at some points, and severing them at others. Perhaps, one can argue that the book glorifies the culture as an entity, but it does not gloss over the struggles within the movement.

One of the blurbs on the back of the book refers to Chang as Hip-Hop’s Howard Zinn. That’s not really a bad comparison. Compared to a VH1 documentary on early hip-hop (which often aren’t terrible) this is a book on written on a post-graduate level. It should be required reading for all kids who profess to like hip-hop music and culture, as well as for their parents.

The other book I’ve had the good fortune to read is, Veeck as in Wreck (1962), the autobiography of nutty baseball owner, Bill Veeck. This book has actually been recommended to me on numerous occasions in the past, and I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier.

The sheer enjoyment factor of this book stacks up with just about anything I can remember reading.

Veeck grew up in a baseball family, he joined the military, sustained combat injuries before becoming embarking on a career as an owner of Minor League, and then Major League baseball teams. Eventually, he needed a wooden leg. He never sat in the owner’s box, preferring to sit alongside the fans. He was a man about town and a charitable soul who slept ,by his own account, about two hours a night. He converted part of one of his ballparks into an apartment and moved in. Bill Veeck is simply one of those people who, if was presented as fictional character for a film, would be dismissed as unbelievable and ordered to be rewritten.

He planted the ivy on Wrigley Field’s outfield walls, gave away livestock to random fans, and buried the previous season’s pennant in a mock funeral service when his Cleveland Indians failed to repeat as American League Champions. He invented the exploding scoreboard, threw the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” promotion, and rigged fences to different depths depending on the amount of power on the opposition’s team. He is probably best known for sending a midget up to hit in a Major League game (and threatening to pick him off with a sniper rifle from atop the stadium if he took a swing). But that feat was far from Veeck’s zaniest. One can only estimate how many rules have been instituted solely to disallow the wild schemes dreamed up and implemented by Veeck.

More importantly, Veeck rallied for integration years before Jackie Robinson. He proposed reforms to the reserve clause, and pleaded for interleague play over fifty years ago. He was a visionary who was branded a side show.

Bill Veeck was reviled by his fellow owners. He, of course, felt they all had their collars too tight. Veeck’s antics were characterized as unprofessional, yet Veeck set attendance records everywhere he went and won a World Series in Cleveland in 1948.

Like the man, the style of the book is offbeat and drily witty. He weaves in and out of topics and gives a candid view of his era and the characters in his life. He quite probably takes plenty of liberties with embellishment, but he is a unique and colorful character, so you really don’t know where and when. There is nothing that he says he did that beyond imagining, given what we know historically to be true.

This book works for sports fans and non-fans; in fact, it would make a great summer read for a book club that has both. Obviously, your enjoyment of the book is even greater if you’re a baseball history buff, but you needn’t enjoy or know about sports to appreciate this book. Lots and lots of people have written autobiographies; many are self-indulgent and few needed to be written. Neither of those criticisms apply to this book.

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