As a part of the relentless, fast-paced, modern media landscape, Message in a Bottle is always hungry for content. Stay fresh! Stay current! That’s our motto. So what’s in the news right now? Well, there’s that proposal to build a new multipurpose sports stadium in Seattle. Must be something bookish we can tie into that. I know—fans will love Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley. The NBA is back in session and appears to be recovering from its alienating lockout, which forced many US stars to find temporary work by playing abroad. Partly because of their experiences, and even more so because of the influx of exciting talent from other shores (think Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, and Ricky Rubio), Americans are becoming more aware of basketball as a global phenomenon. And let’s not forget about Linsanity—Jeremy Lin’s outstanding performance and ethnic heritage have helped shine a light on the feverish world of the Chinese professional leagues. What better time to release (and talk about) a book on this very subject? It’s a travelogue, a fun fish-out-of-water tale, and also an informative take on the big business of entertainment.
Readers of a less jockish persuasion may want to seek out Jim Bouton’s Foul Ball, the story of his attempt to spend his own money restoring a historic, municipally-owned minor league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The only thing that stood in his way was a competing plan, thrice rejected by local voters, that involved tearing down the landmark and replacing it with a new facility to the tune of 18.5 million dollars in taxpayer funding. Logic would dictate that this be a very short book: “The good guys win. The end.” Of course, things in the real world never play out that easily. Foul Ball is partly a sports book, but even more it’s an exceptionally sharp look at civic politics. It’s must reading, really, for anyone interested in how government and the private sector interact behind closed doors.
That casts a pretty wide net, but maybe we need something with even broader appeal to capture the massive audience we’re seeking. What’s a trendy issue that touches everyone? Aha—the economy. Even Clint Eastwood’s interested in that. Depending on who’s making a speech, we’re either still in darkest crisis or beginning to see the light. Regardless, we all know that a huge mess was made and we’re in the cleanup phase. There are plenty of non-fiction accounts to explain how we got into this situation, but sometimes facts aren’t enough to make us feel what the ride was like. That’s where storytelling comes in, and that’s why it’s the perfect time for a paperback release of Williams Gaddis’s National Book Award-winning novel J R.
It may look a little intimidating from the outside because of its size, and its lack of chapter breaks may ratchet up the anxiety, but brush those fears aside. It’s a masterfully arranged chaos of conversation that never fails to amuse and illuminate, and it’s by far the best fictional portrayal of the American financial system. The theme is clear from the first word of dialogue (“Money”) and throughout the novel every character, whether banker or bohemian, is subjected to the whims of the market. The whirlpool of plot is set in motion by the title character, an eleven-year-old boy who proves that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing, taking a worthless share of penny stock and his book-learned business sense and parlaying them into a vast, speculative paper empire that will inevitably crash down on everyone around him. J R’s aims are serious, but its tone is not—it’s pure satire with the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers, and it actually makes the idea of mortgage bubbles and corporate bailouts funny. Anyone who reads it will find daily reports from the Wall Street Journal to be more absurd and yet more intelligible than ever. Be assured, there’s not a more topical book to be found than this one.
Did I mention that it was first published in 1975? J R launches his projects from a payphone instead of sending text messages, but otherwise you might not notice. It speaks just as clearly and truthfully as it did thirty-seven years ago, and it’s highly likely that generations to come will say the same. Books have a shelf life longer than almost any other form of art or entertainment, and the greatest ones stay fresh endlessly. Instead of responding to a continually changing environment, they create their own and settle down in it. Every now and then the rat race circles around again to bring them into view and we wonder how they got so far ahead of us. They remind us that sometimes it’s better to let the moment catch up than it is to chase it. That’s why Message in a Bottle likes to bring you the news, but also the olds.