George Plimpton’s writings tend to be scattered in numerous different and dissimilar publications, thus making an anthology like The Best of Plimpton particularly useful.
Plimpton is perhaps best known for his “participatory journalism,” where he writes about his amateur forays into professional worlds, mostly of an athletic nature. But his appeal would be minimal if there were not a lot more to his writing than just this one gimmick.
Certainly he handles that particular shtick very well. Sometimes he proves reasonably competent as the “professional amateur,” and sometimes things deteriorate into what Hemingway called “the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty,” but at all times his writing is crisp and insightful. He is decidedly not an amateur when it comes to his powers of observation, interpretation, and articulation.
Take, for instance, his discovery that playing in a symphony orchestra is inherently more stressful than participating in professional sports in at least one important respect, namely that in sports, mistakes and failures—as much as they might make the athlete feel momentarily embarrassed, as much as they might cause the coach to go into a tirade, and as much as they might cause fans to boo and criticize—are a part of the game. Every athlete frequently throws incompletions, misses free throws, strikes out, etc. The superstars are those who fail slightly less often than others. But mess up just once playing in a symphony for a perfectionist conductor like Leonard Bernstein and you’ll find out pretty quickly that the level of tolerance for errors in that field is quite different indeed. The book is full of interesting insights like this.
But I found that the other writings, on average, held my interest at least as well as the “professional amateur” participatory writings. There were pieces that based on the subject matter I might have guessed would be among the least interesting to me, that instead turned out to be among my favorites. Those pleasant surprises included two pieces about family and children—one about JFK playing with daughter Caroline on the beach in 1962, and one about Plimpton’s experience of taking his own daughter to see his alma mater Harvard’s classic rivalry football game against Yale. Also intriguing was a piece on poet Marianne Moore that introduces the reader to her unconventional mental world by, among other things, revealing the sorts of things she notices at sporting events. I could cite several other examples.
I do have some quibbles with how The Best of Plimpton is organized. The pieces are not consistently identified in terms of when the events in question occurred, when the piece itself originally appeared in print, in what publication it was originally published, whether the version of the piece in the book is the same as the original or has been altered, etc. Sometimes this type of information is stated, sometimes it can be inferred, and sometimes not even that. Some of the pieces have separate introductions; some do not. Overall, I would have appreciated a little more clarity and a little more background information.
But there is far more to like than dislike about this book, many gems amongst the three dozen or so selections. It’s a fine book for the sports fan with some intellect and depth, but it deserves a wider audience than just sports fans.