The Accidental Reader

By Alex J. Grant

OUTER BANKS, NC. Summer vacations are said to be for fluffy, fun “beach reading,” but I find vacations to be perfect for a different reading experience: serendipitous discovery. In a world of Google, we tend to seek out exactly what we are looking for, and we find it quite quickly. This has virtually eliminated the accidental reading we did when card catalogs and clumsy indices sent our research projects on tangents and down blind alleys. This led to inadvertent diversions from the main topic and to reading entire chapters of books while seated in the library stacks, knowing all the while that no progress whatsoever was being made on that looming term paper.
Thankfully bereft of research papers, the adult vacationer can nonetheless re-create the experience by browsing the shelves of a friend’s bookcase, or by scanning the titles of books at a rental cottage. Instead of the whole world at your fingertips, the universe of fiction and non-fiction is circumscribed by the vagaries of another person’s proclivity to purchase and collect books.
These collections of books tend to be somewhat dated, and for the non-fiction reader, there is the chance to experience what I call “double history.” The non-fiction author of yesteryear attempts to make sense of people and events in the present or past (the first history), but in so doing, the writer unconsciously and inevitably provides a window into the time in which he or she is writing (the second history). This second history is often the more fascinating. Years ago, I would randomly open up a volume in a set of 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannicas to see what the dusty editors had to say, for example, about the “Great War” before it had to be renamed World War I and rewritten as a prelude to World War II.
This summer, I picked up two paperbacks by Tom Boswell, a sportswriter for the Washington Post who published some of his better newspaper columns from the 1970s and 1980s in 1990 and 1991. Some of the history he recounts seems so right 20 or 30 years later. Jack Nicklaus capped a magnificent career in 1986 by winning the Masters at age 46, and more amazingly, while not cheating on his wife or ignoring his children. Boswell’s profile of Eric Heiden prior to Heiden’s five gold medal tour de force at the 1980 Winter Olympics seems prescient in the fullness of time, not because of Heiden’s Olympian accomplishments, but because Boswell saw that Heiden would have a life beyond speed skating. Heiden went on to become a pro cyclist, and at the age of 55, Heiden is an accomplished orthopedic surgeon.
Other insights seem laughable now, as when Boswell wails against the evils of rotisserie baseball (now called “fantasy baseball’) in the late 1980s. He argues against information overload in the form of the sports statistics published in Bill James’ annual compendiums. Little does Boswell know that the internet will, in a few years, make those paper tomes seem like quaint pamphlets of a simpler era. Fantasy sports will, with the aid of the internet, become a multi-billion dollar activity and take over the lives of sports fans in every season of the year.
Likewise, when Boswell rails against the showboating of Deion Sanders and William “the Refrigerator” Perry, and harks back to a time when “modesty was the norm,” the 2013 reader can’t help but shake his head in bemusement. The sports celebrities of the 1980s had no reality shows to follow their every move, they had no Twitter or Dancing with the Stars, and even Neon Deion could not have conceived of Lebron James producing an hourlong TV special called “The Decision” so that James could say, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” If Bruce Jenner was an overexposed pitchman on a 1976 box of Wheaties, what is he now?
Still more fascinating are the columns about football and boxing, in which even the sympathetic Boswell accepts the inherent violence of those sports. We learn that in 1980 Jack Youngblood played the NFC title game with a broken, yes broken, leg. He got himself ready to play that day by smoking a bunch of cigarettes that were snuffed out in an overflowing ashtray, while ignoring the orange juice and candy bar that had been left for his nourishment. Youngblood’s team won that day, and he limped out of the locker room, ready for the Super Bowl.
The casual concussions of football and the spectacle of men playing on broken legs can be better understood when boxing was, at that time, often a death match. Boswell says of the 1980 Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight, “Boxing at its best is beastly.” While Leonard and Duran survived their 15 round slugfest, and went on to fight two more times in the 1980s, the loser on the undercard was not so lucky. Cleveland Denny was knocked out and carried away on a stretcher in convulsions. Denny’s opponent, as Boswell writes, was “proud of his punch,” and the winner mimicked the way in which Denny’s eyes rolled back in his head. Denny went to the hospital and later died.
This is not beach reading, but it reminds us that the world of non-fiction is chock full of surprises. Even in books out-of-date and long forgotten, there is writing that continues to speak to us, and in ways that the author could not have imagined. Events occur, the stories are told, history is written, and the reinterpretation of those events, stories, and history goes on every time a reader opens a book.

Alex J. Grant is a member of the Longmeadow Select Board. His email address is