Judging the Wrapper

I argue that David Hart, in his essay “A Perfect Game”, made a beautiful swing for the fences, but managed only to pop out to first. Others of you no doubt disagree.

Is there a way to judge between the two opinions?

To judge a steak, I compare it to a really good steak, one which I have eaten before, one on another plate before me, or an ideal I have imagined. Though my judgment is ultimately one of taste, I’m certain that a really fine food critic would make his judgment based upon factors of which I would be unaware. The critic’s judgment would either explain why I preferred the one to the other, or I, in deference to the background and expertise of the critic, would be forced to train my taste to recognize the superior quality of the one I did not choose.

Writing is not all that different. If I set Hart’s piece next to other baseball writing, how does it hold up? If I find it in comparison far less tasty than some of the best out there, the objective criteria of my literary elders would either explain why I find it superior or would force me to reassess my judgment.

This question made me think of a man whom I consider to be one of the best essayists in recent generations: Stephen Jay Gould, of both Harvard University and the American Museum of Natural History. These credentials alone suggest that he, too, like David Hart, is a fairly sharp guy.

I was first introduced to Gould through the pages of Natural History magazine in which he would write a monthly essay when I was subscriber 30 years ago. As a paleontologist Gould would often aim his sharp and piercing verbal arrows at the Biblical account of creation. His essays were challenging, sometimes disturbing, and always accessible.

Though I often disagreed with his conclusions, Gould, like a good essayist, did not (to make a paleontological allusion) bury his bones under impenetrable sediment of verbiage, but exposed them in such a way that forced me to deal with them.

Gould was as well a lover of baseball (and of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, for which I pity him). I was reminded of this recently when reading the introduction to the book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series which Gould wrote.

To sample writing in which Gould weaves his love for baseball and his contemplations about origins, perhaps this essay, The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, will serve as a ‘second steak’ to set alongside Hart’s The Perfect Game.

I’m not on a crusade do denigrate David Hart. But I am asking if there is such a thing as ‘good’ writing and ‘poor’ writing and how to judge the difference.