Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reading: Joseph O'Neill

According to Joseph O'Neill, the first organized team sport to be played in the United States was not football, or baseball, or soccer, and polo. It was, in fact, cricket, that strange sport familiar to most Americans only as what those good-looking British chaps played in all those Merchant-Ivory films. In fact, as O'Neill pointed out, Philadelphia itself was known as somewhat of a hub for cricketeers, and he, himself, has played (for the Staten Island team) on Philly cricket pitches, the least of which is located on the unfortunately named Dick Avenue.

So even though O'Neill's novel Netherland became somewhat of a cause célèbre when President Obama revealed on the BBC that he was reading it, O'Neill seemed quite self-effacing, declining to speak further on what might be the hippest endorsement since Oprah Winfrey's Bookclub called it a day. Instead, he was content to talk about cricket for the uninitiated, all but inviting the audience to come cheer him on. (You see, there's this ball, and this bat, and two teams, and something called a wicket...)

But he did point out an fascinating point on the issue of celebrity and the president: for ordinary folk, meeting the president can seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Something you commemorate by taking copious pictures, writing effusive diary entries, and vowing never to wash your hand again. But for the President, it's possibly the most forgettable moment in his day. So perhaps, O'Neill hopes, reading novels is a way for the President to reconnect with the people in a more sustained way than a handshake and a quick shuffling of Secret Service agents. The novel becomes a means of re-entry, rather than escape.

And if that fails, there's always a game of cricket.

No comments: