Though it’s easy to make fun of the sillier portions of my job because those are the things that stick out in people’s memories, there are a lot of great aspects to my job too (as would be expected). Moments of brilliance, even, and moments which assure me I’m in the profession I’m supposed to be in. I encountered one such example today in a book I’m reading about baseball.
Let me set up the backdrop for this book.
First of all, when I took a look at my schedule for April, I was slightly dismayed to see that I’ve been assigned not one but two books about baseball, both fiction based on fact. Surely this was a mistake? Surely these books were meant for my fellow editor and good friend Reese, who loves baseball more than any of the rest of the editors? Why in the world would my boss give me, a professed Denver Broncos and Kansas basketball fan and active hater of baseball (and soccer), two entire books on baseball?
So I looked at the teasers. Both sound mildly interesting, for baseball books.
So I called the authors to discuss the books.
For the book I read (and finished) today, neither the teaser nor the phone call did much to get me excited about the book. The author told me it’s a fictional novel based on his son’s junior-year high school baseball team. He went on to tell me that he’d kept a scorebook and detailed log of each game throughout the season and that the book progresses game by game. Fantastic. (Sarcasm.)
When I opened up the manuscript on Monday (yesterday), the copy editor’s note warned me that the book is heavily peppered with baseball lingo. No problem. I played softball for eight years. I know that K stands for strike, even though that’s never really made sense to me. My confidence soon retreated when I was greeted right off the bat (ha! get it? I didn’t even do that on purpose!) with a ridiculously confusing sentence about “a groundout to short” that induced a “six-to-three-to-four double play.” Just when I thought I might have deciphered that sentence and was ready to move on, I was hit with the description of the next play as an E-6.
We’re reduced to numbers and letters now? What is this, some kind of baseball Morse code?
I tapped out a professional “wtf” e-mail to Reese the Expert, who promptly answered and explained everything. (Apparently, the field positions are numbered, and six stands for shortstop, and E is error.) Armed with my new knowledge, I proceeded through the play-by-play, game-by-game narrative, which was peppered with subplot points between games and chapters.
At the end of the day, I was surprised to realize I was more than halfway through the book and itching for more. So this morning I got right back on it as soon as I got in to work and worked steadily through it all day long again. Twice I teared up when it looked like the baseball team was going to lose an important game and a chance for the state championship only to pull comebacks and win both times.
Then, in chapter forty-two (of forty-four), just after the team has clinched its spot in the state championship series and I’m coming down the home stretch and thinking that while the book has been a really fun read, it’s also been kind of predictable, BAM! The narrator dies.
What’s that, you say? That’s right. My narrator died. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the climax was the death of the narrator. Sure, I’ve seen main characters die (my literary self even hoped for Harry Potter to die, only because that was the last thing my reader self truly wanted or expected), but I’ve never seen the principal character as the narrator die.
At first I was angry. Then, as the tears began to flow for a third time since beginning the book (cause of death was a sudden, unforeseen coronary) and I realized how emotionally invested I have become in this story – as a reader, not just the editor – I had a fleeting vision of myself sitting in an auditorium and standing up out of my seat to begin a slow, respectful clap, all the while allowing a huge smile to spread across my face.
This is why I do what I do. So that I can congratulate brilliance. My author pissed me off by killing his narrator, and that’s exactly what made the book. No longer did it matter whether the high school team won the championship or whether that outcome was predictable. This death of a principal character (for the narrator is the father of one of the players on the baseball team), of a character the reader has unintentionally – and perhaps even unknowingly, up to this point – come to love, was unforeseen. Therefore, the author has succeeded.
Sol Stein said that readers love to predict what’s going to happen, but even more than that, they love to be wrong. And how true those words are.
My hat is off to this author, who surprised me in the best way. He got me to love a book I didn’t want to love about a subject matter I’ve never cared anything about. How can we define success any more clearly?