Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our August DRAB selection was C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading.
Giri Nathan: So what did everyone think of the longest Defector freelance blog of all time?
Laura Wagner: We can dream! I was astounded by the ambition of his arguments … just reeling in anticipation after reading the first line of a chapter. For example, the chapter on W.G. Grace begins: “Through W.G. Grace, cricket, the most complete expression of popular life in pre-industrial England, was incorporated into the life of the nation.” I’m over here like, “Hell yeah, hell yeah!” And then he delivers.
Maitreyi Anantharaman: Ha, I was actually always amused by the last line of each chapter, where he seemed to enter this lofty, metaphor-heavy register. As a piece of writing, I thought it was a lot of fun—there’s so much flair, everything dense with literary references. The early chapters about how cool and tortured he was as a … 10-year-old (?) reading Vanity Fair were great.
LW: Looking back, he calls his young self a “little eccentric,” and someone who he would like to “listen to, nod affirmatively, and pat on the shoulder.” He writes that, “to that little boy I owe a debt of gratitude.” I found this self-reflection a little sad and very sweet.
GN: It’s one of the most difficult books to categorize I’ve read in a while: memoir, anthropology, sweeping history, sports blog, art criticism, polemic. I don’t think I appreciated at the outset how bold an argument it would be, and how vast the scope of his reading and synthesis would get. I love that it’s also an intervention in the way history is told. He’s upset about the things it tends to overlook, in the fabric of people’s daily lives, like sports: “It finds no place in the history of the people because the historians do not begin from what people seem to want but from what they think they ought to want.” It’s like the proto-sports thinkpiece, but done with actual love, attention, and infinite receipts.
LW: He goes to lengths to revive and contextualize people and characters that he admits people outside of West Indian cricket might not even know about, and those are some of the best parts of the book. His fanaticism for—and amazingly intimate knowledge of—the sport itself makes every larger argument about colonialism, racism, self-determination feel really alive.
MA: One effect of reading this without much cricket background is that each character he sketches feels equally vital. You don’t quite have a sense of any one person’s relative celebrity. W.G. Grace is as formative to James’s understanding of cricket as Matthew Bondman, this random “awful character” who lives next door to the James family. The idea that Bondman’s cricket ability might “atone in any sense for Matthew’s abominable way of life” captivates James and it sets up nicely one of the great questions of the book, about what cricket transcends or reifies.
LW: Bondman, that little scamp.
GN: It’s the sign of a true sports sicko that he can hold all these characters of varying importance in his head and argue passionately for the world-historic value of each one. I was thinking how wild it would be to be descended from one of these more obscure characters and come across this fine-grained profile of your grandpa written by a genius. Just because he liked the way he batted the ball to a certain side or something.
LW: James handles every person and topic so carefully. Even when he’s disagreeing forcefully with T.S. Eliot about memory and liberation (“I do not wish to be liberated from that past”) he manages to compliment him: “…he is of special value to me in that in him I find more often than elsewhere, and beautifully and precisely stated, things to which I am completely opposed.”
GN: The burns were really well-done. I also love when he’s relitigating some cricket tactics argument he had 30 years ago. In general it’s an extremely disorienting snapshot of a time where you actually had to read and listen to what other people said and engage with it in good faith in order to say something about it in public. Or at least a time where that was more common. Even if being able to read and write at all were less common. Trade-offs!
LW: Yeah! That reminds me of the anecdote in which a fan of Wilton St. Hill shows up to ask James to write a poem about St. Hill—after James wrote, as a joke, a comic verse about another cricketer. The fan was earnest and James obliged, “sweating out a sonnet” in the paper. It meant little or nothing to James, but a lot to the fan who asked for it. This is around where he gets into the idea of national pride and “that’s our boy.”
I think a reason St. Hill stuck out to me as a character is because James conveys that he didn’t know him in the way he did the other characters. “St. Hill I could never quite make out.” There’s also a sense that James and St. Hill were divided by their circumstances, but also by their choices. After a tortured decision-making process, James chose to play with Maple, the club that, as a general rule, fielded only brown/lighter-skin players. St. Hill was offered to play for Maple and he completely refused on principle, saying that his brothers, who were darker skinned, wouldn’t be welcome to play there. Maybe because James’s sketch of St. Hill wasn’t as fleshed out as the others, I found myself wanting to know a lot more about him.
MA: The three of us are a particularly appropriate audience for this book—I wonder if it also made either of you reflect on how you think and write about sports in your work? The chapter on cricket as art clicked for me, in the sense that I think the best sportswriting is visual. I’m always hoping to capture sports and athletes in those specific terms of gesture and movement. (I don’t know that I do them justice when I actually write!)
GN: That chapter was great. It was like the responsibly executed version of insufferable “basketball is jazz” blogging. I appreciate his visual attunement to what’s happening on the pitch, and his comprehension of all the technical wrinkles, because that’s sorely missing from most thinky sportswriting these days. As far as work goes, one thing I found inspiring is how James wields details accreted over a lifetime—is this all stored in his head? Is he rifling through mildewy newspaper cutouts?—in the service of his larger arguments. It makes it seem like that attention is all worthwhile, in the end. Like Patrick is going to write a cultural history of Sacramento through the lens of Georgios Papagiannis someday. I don’t have the guts to take swings as big as James does throughout this book, and in some cases the sheer style and conviction won me over more than the actual case he’s making, but there’s something very noble about taking such ambitious cuts.
MA: Giri, I appreciated that too, and agree that a lot of Sports Matters writing seems disinterested in the actual gameplay, which is a shame, because even the aesthetic debates in sports are never purely aesthetic. You can sort of see a link between Sir Donald Bradman’s maligned “machine-like play” and the contemporary hatred for “three true outcomes” baseball or tennis’s “servebots.” I couldn’t fully appreciate his imagery, because I know very little about cricket and had to re-learn the rules. (Being an idiot blogger much more interested in the humiliations of sports than the triumphs, I immediately wanted to know whether batsmen ever get out on the first delivery they face and whether this would make them a clown. Apparently this is called scoring “a golden duck.”)
LW: I got a lot from that chapter, too, less from the specifics of the argument that cricket is art (because I don’t know much about art, though I learned from that chapter) and more in the sense that he is unequivocal in his belief that it is valuable to critically engage with cricket, and popular sports in general. I agree that a lot of the current thinky sportswriting is kinda annoying, but I’m often thinking myself about why it matters when some athlete does something cool or breaks some record. I mean, I felt emotional just reading about Grace scoring 100 centuries! Why? Thankfully James has some answers: “On what other occasion, sporting or non-sporting, was there ever such enthusiasm, such an unforced sense of community, of the universal merged in an individual? At the end of a war? A victorious election? With its fears, hatreds, its violent passions?… If this is not social history what is.” I think James is able to state plainly, for the reasons you both mentioned, what it is about cricket, and sports, that’s capable of fostering this possibly unique sense of togetherness.
GN: I used to watch cricket on TV in the summers when I was kid visiting India, so I had to draw on those foggy memories, and a lot of Wikipedia, to capture even 15 percent of the richness of James’s descriptions. I think it would definitely reward a re-read after I’ve gotten a chance to learn more.
LW: I basically knew nothing about cricket before reading this. I had a ton of fun losing hours learning about it and watching YouTube videos.
MA: This is the only cricketer I acknowledge:
LW: Heh. Are there fancams for cricketers?
MA: There’s a good, like, five-hour cricket fancam called Lagaan.
GN: Speaking of: I liked the occasional comparisons to baseball. Both in the art chapter, and earlier on when he’s talking about the culture of cricket. I don’t think I really had a handle on his argument that cricket is this massive colonial export of British Puritan values until he describes going to a baseball game and getting outraged by his fellas hooting and hollering. That’s when it came together for this American reader.
MA: I didn’t totally buy his attempts to distinguish cricket’s essential drama from baseball’s, but the comparisons were fun to chew on. I read Ted Williams’s book on hitting a little while ago and was amused by how much time he spent saying stuff like, This is NOT like a golf swing. We are NOTHING like golfers. We need a golfer to write a book distancing their sport from cricket and then the circle will be complete.
LW: The part where he’s describing watching baseball with his rowdy American friends is funny. He chalks that up to differences in “national character and outlook” and countenances it. But he simply cannot get over the college basketball fixing scandal, which his American friends generally handwave. James doesn’t see the scandal as having to do with labor and exploitation, but a failing on the part of individuals due to ego and individualistic bent. He even ends the book with a reference back to it, hoping his sons will never sell a game. On the one hand, I think this is a blindspot. On the other, I think maybe it speaks to the value he sees in sports, in a utopian sense. What’d you guys make of his view on the college basketball thing?
GN: I really liked the sensation he described: being surprised by his own reaction to the scandal, as he talks to nonplussed Americans. As a Marxist who grew up under colonialism, he “was the last person they had expected that sort of thing from. By the time we had discussed for some little while I was looking at myself a little strangely.” It’s an honest account of his entangled sporting, social, and political commitments.
MA: He draws that comparison between a sport’s codes and religion; you inherit this set of principles that just seem right and which you never think to question. Sort of like the unwritten rules of baseball. And once you’ve been steeped in those codes, you can never fully extricate yourself from them. In his youth, James is caught in that contradiction, one that animates much of this book: “Two people lived in me: one, the rebel against all family and school discipline and order; the other, a Puritan who would have cut off a finger sooner than do anything contrary to the ethics of the game.”
LW: His American friends don’t seem to be making the case about labor exploitation either, though. The conclusions he and his American friends arrive at, he writes, have to do with the young people having no loyalty to the school, or anything, having universal distrust of their elders, and each having to work out an individual code. Were they talking about it in terms of labor in these conversations, I wonder?
GN: I think it’s probably that college sports weren’t yet a billion-dollar industry with unpaid workers that would prompt that kind of analysis. I am too sheepish to question James’s bona fides as a Marxist analyst; he saw a lot of gaol time. But it is clear that he’s feeling some internal dissonance about this college basketball thing, even if he’s not making that analysis explicitly.
LW: I’m not questioning his bona fides, I’m just curious about the conversations he and his friends were having because they definitely made an impression on him. I went back and read the foreword and Lipsyte is also asking about this. He writes: “That James could not automatically accept that these athletes were the greedy spawn of an exploitative system is the positive proof of his own liberation and oppression through sports.” This is what I was trying to get at. The idea that there can be something transcendent or liberatory about sports.
GN: That’s a cool idea—even as he’s using cricket to mount this book-long case about colonialism, and describing how cricket was this bridge to his political radicalization, he still has some blind spots about particular cases. He’s sportspilled!
He just respects the game too damn much. The game has provided a scaffolding of meaning throughout his entire life. He feels that same dissonance that our commenters describe, minus the poop jokes.
MA: Though he did spend some ink on George Headley’s bowel movements …
GN: That was Funbag-tier stuff.
LW: We love it. Before we wrap this up, I wanted to talk about his campaign for Frank Worrell for captain. In the late ’50s, James had moved back to the West Indies for three months and ended up staying four years. He edited a newspaper and used that position to wage a campaign for Worrell’s captaincy; previously only white men had been made captains. He saw this clearly in context of colonial rule: “The more brilliantly the black men played, the more it would emphasize to millions of English people: ‘Yes, they are fine players, but, funny, isn’t it, they cannot be responsible for themselves–they must always have a white man to lead them.”
James dug into the campaign. “Week after week I carried on unsparingly,” he writes, shedding, he says, some remnants of the “code” for being a good sport. He was “angry,” he was “making a fuss.” In the end, Worrell was named captain and James was rightfully credited. I can’t not think about this stuff at this point, but I think this is the clearest example of what journalism could be.
GN: It’s also another example of the tension James feels between his loyalty to sports code and to a higher liberatory cause. He feels that he overstated the pure cricket case against Alexander to make his case for his man: “I put my scruples aside and I think that for the first, and I hope the last time in reporting cricket I was not fair. But I was determined to rub in the faces of everybody that Frank Worrell, the last of the three W’s, was being discriminated against.”
DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.