History writing

2 Oct

Aside from Norman Mailor’s, “The Fight,” “Seabiscuit, an American Legend” is the best piece of sports journalism I’ve ever read. Granted, I haven’t read much. But like most good writing, it transcends the genre. That’s what I love so much about good writers. It doesn’t matter what they’re writing about because whatever it is, it’ll be enjoyable. Unlike those who write narrowly for a small audience, some authors transcend boundaries to reach for something common in the human experience. I followed Susan Orlean as she explored orchid flowers, something that never previously interested me. By the end of the book, the flower, I found, was fascinating.

It’s the same with Seabiscuit. Horse racing, something I never paid attention to, transformed into something wondrous. What’s marvelous about Seabiscuit is that every inch of it is true. Every quote she uses people actually said. Every detail is documented. You might as well be reading a history book, but it’s the best disguised history you’ll ever read. It’s more like a novel than anything else.

The charachters become people, the scenery becomes place. A dusty date, 1938, for example, becomes now. Everything becomes real. It’s all so natural, you hardly realize what’s happening. The tree branches begin swaying. Seabiscuit snuffles at his hay. Pollard says something. You can hear the rumbling from the track and feel the spray of mud as horses race past. The author recreates everything piece by piece until you see, smell, feel, taste and touch the world she so carefully constructs.

There were passages in the book that caught my breath. I stopped. I re-read. It wasn’t that any particular sentence was beautifully crafted, as it happens in some books, but rather, that the entire passage had come together in the way real life happens, with a million little details, like tiny dots, to create not a picture of something but an impression. When Seabiscuit dies from a heart attack, his owner, someone who is very public, decides not for a large funeral but something small. And so it happens that the most famous horse in history is buried somewhere on the rolling hills of a ranch in California, with nothing to mark his resting place but an oak tree. By the end, I admit to tears. And the book did end with the horse’s death. But what a wonderful story. If only all of history could be told in this way. Perhaps, this is how it was meant to be told. If only there were better writers to bring it kicking and screaming to life.


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