A Review of
A Year of Playing Catch: What a Simple Experiment Taught Me About Life
Reviewed by John Wilson
Many of my readers, I know, will be scratching their heads. They’re only marginally aware of professional baseball, especially in this peculiar year. But if they will be patient, I think they’ll find that Ethan D. Bryan’s book A Year of Playing Catch: What a Simple Experiment Taught Me About Life has something worth thinking about for them, even if their passion for baseball in any form, not just the MLB variety, is as tepid as my enthusiasm for golf.
I do need to issue a trigger-warning. Bryan’s book falls in a genre that has become increasingly common in the last twenty years, in which the author performs what ungenerous readers might call a stunt. Author A, say, sets out to read all the books in the Bible, coming to them cold, so to speak, and reporting on what he finds. Author B, a lover of cooking and good food, visits an interesting restaurant in every state. Author C . . . but you know the drill. So: “Avid baseball fan Ethan Bryan shares captivating stories from an experiment centered on playing catch. Every single day. For an entire year. Crossing 10 states and 12,000 miles on a quest both quixotic and inspiring.”
As this summary from the publisher suggests, A Year of Playing Catch blends conventions from two genres: the stunt and the first-person inspirational, featuring conversations with a wide range of “colorful” figures who join the author for a bit of catch. Some readers (myself included) are leery of both of these genres; to some extent this is simply a matter of taste. But I do love baseball, and though I wince at gushing references to “the sacredness of play,” etc., Bryan’s book stirred memories from my childhood (playing catch with my younger brother, Rick, especially) and fatherhood (playing catch with our children) and set me thinking about “play” more generally: what place it plays in our lives, how we talk about it, the forms it takes (good, bad, mixed), what is satisfactory and unsatisfactory in various attempts I’ve encountered over the years to talk about play “theologically”—all this and more.
“It seems to me,” Bryan writes,
that play is an audacious act of hope. In a world that is driven by the bottom line and uber-efficiency, play loudly challenges everyone not to take themselves so seriously. Play breathes into our broken world and extends an invitation to join the present beauty. Play creates margin in the midst of the mundane, offering fresh perspectives and insights in exchange for an investment of time.
This is a typical Bryan passage, winsome in some respects, grating in others (for me at least). Playing catch itself typically isn’t competitive, but many of the other examples of “play” that Bryan refers to are very competitive. When I was a boy and a young man, I spent huge amounts of time (maybe excessive amounts) playing games of all kinds. And I took them very seriously—not humorlessly, but seriously. I hated to play with people who didn’t seem to take the game (whatever it was) seriously. So that would-be inspirational passage I’ve just quoted (one of a great many from Bryan’s book) strikes me as terribly muddled, in a way that makes it difficult for readers to separate genuine insights from dross.
And yet, to be stimulated by a writer (one who is a fellow lifelong lover of baseball) to think about such matters, even with a degree of exasperation, is not such a bad deal. You may arrive at the same conclusion if you give A Year of Playing Catch a try.
John Wilson is Contributing Editor for The Englewood Review of Books. He was previously editor of Books and Culture magazine.