Friday, August 2, 2013

Tangential to Birding Book Review: Playing at the World by Jon Peterson

Ok, I've been sitting on this post for a few weeks now, trying to get the subtleties of what I am saying to come forth into writing. It hasn't worked, so I'm doing the next best thing: writing this while tired and after having a couple beers!

There is a section at the beginning of The Big Year (holy shit, it is only $6 on Amazon, go buy it now if you don't have it!) where the author (Mark Obmascik) talks about Sandy Komito as joking around and having fun during birding, while others around him were more serious acting and rolled their eyes or acted in a way that showed they disapproved. Now, I don't have the book in front of me (I lent it to my brother who I am sure is reading it right now) to quote it, but this stands out to me for a few reasons. First, Sandy Komito is one badass birder in the book, yet he still makes jokes and enjoys himself while doing it; no one can say after looking at his year count that he isn't serious. Second, this is something I've exactly noticed while birding.

Most of you have never birded with me, though you probably know a little of my personality from how I write, but I can describe it for you! I am a serious birder, one that pays attention and looks for detail and is out there to kick ass. Deep down, I am all business. But... I joke around, chat with people, am relatively affable (I know!), tell stories, listen to stories, and enjoy myself the whole time (obviously this is when I'm with a group). I like to make small jokes and puns that aren't too obvious (ok, some that are obvious). I like to openly question the always-present photographers taking yet another picture of the ever rare and elusive Great Blue Heron. You get the idea.

But I am not a "talker". Yeah, I talk, but I've been in groups where a talker chats with me and it disrupts the birding. I don't disrupt the birding. I am goofy and sociable but, like I said, I am all business underneath.

It isn't a perfect dichotomy, but I've found that among those that are "all business" there tends to be the sociable types that have fun and smile, and those that are more "this is serious business." I'm not saying one is better than the other (my way is, duh!), but one thing I have found is the group of Serious Business tends to include many autism spectrum folks (aspies in the old terminology).

Go out with a large group of birders that don't each other some time and you'll see this too. You'll see a large array of people and birder types, but one thing you will notice is that the more fun loving yet serious people will eventually group together and the serious business birders will stay away from them. It happens all the time when I go on a walk in Cape May, let alone at Heinz with people I know.

But this is not unique to birding. I was in academia for a long time and this was totally rampant there, and I'm sure Associate Professor Paul can attest to that as well. Anything nerdy or geeky will probably be the same thing. This is very much true with another of my hobbies: modern board games.

Oh, geeky pursuits, you are truly the haven for the socially inept and the mildly autistic! Seriously, though, go to any geek store and you will see the same thing I described about birding above. With board games you get these same types, but you have the added problem that any game played is inherently a social endeavor, so the interactions between the two groups is even higher and unavoidabler. You think there is disdain amongst birders of different personalities? Imagine when those personalities play as direct competitors.

Which brings us to this book.

In the background: Baseball Prospectus, from yet another of my interests that has the same issues

Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson. This is a very large book about the history of Dungeons and Dragons. No, that isn't right. It is about the history of everything that ever influenced the inception of DnD and how it did influence it. There is talk about chess, talk about Diplomacy, talk about wargaming, talk about lots of stuff including the early history of DnD. It is quite comprehensive.

It is fascinating, interesting, well-researched book that I couldn't put down. But it is not a good book. Sure, there is a good book in there, but the author does his best to make it not good.

Right now I must point out that DnD is notorious for attracting both types of geeky people (sociable yet serious versus this is serious business types) because it is a rules and numbers intense simulation system that is at its heart a social endeavor with lots of talking and interacting. Both types of geeky people are supposed to be the audience of the book, and when you are reading it you can tell that the author is struggling to try to reach both of those audiences. He jam-packs the book full of everything he can think of, almost to make sure that completists are happy (even if he is the completist he is satisfying), but still makes some great anecdotes and observations about the personalities that were around.

However, those personal touches and observations are rare, especially when compared to cascade of overwhelming and often unnecessary discussion of every aspect that is even tangentially related to the topic. It is often a dispassionate tome that would be best served as an index rather than a compelling story about the rise of one of the most influential games ever made.

We've all read books like this before, just like we've all met people like this before and birded with birders like this before. They see the birds and mark them down and know the marks, but they don't really watch them and don't really see all the nature around them. They get the birds but they don't get the birds.

Jon Peterson sees the story in his book, but he doesn't get the story in his book. As a result you get 770 pages (yes, seriously, it was 770 pages, I had to renew it from the library twice) of a book that should have been literally 1/3 of that. Instead of a story we get someone writing in a faux-monograph style in a way that people think academics write (overwriting, foregoing "I" by dropping to passive voice or saying "your author", footnotes, etc.). You get dozens of pages about wargaming in the 1800s that, while interesting (maybe, but not for me) and somehow important in the story, could easily have been summarized with a single page. You get the author stating that it is ok to skip a section if you want to (no freaking way! I can actually skip a section? Wow, I'm glad I have the author's permission!), and he does that several times in the book. You get footnotes and citations, but you get little actual insight into any of the people that are mentioned there beyond what can be put forward from things they themselves have written. The author doesn't really interpret things.

Basically you are getting a book that is written as if this was Serious Business.

I started this post mentioning The Big Year, and that is no accident. Both books are about people trying to do something big, some accomplishment that will make its mark on their field. Mark Obmascik looks at that story and see people and things that shape them. He sees actual real drama and he knows how to write it so that the reader is held rapt in attention because we got to know the people in the book. Even if you were like me and didn't really feel as if you actually liked the three participants that much, you still wanted to read it to know what happened. You did that because the book, while serious and a good piece of chronicling, was enjoyable.

Playing at the world chronicles its topic very well, and even gives a small glimpse into the people involved. But mostly I read it because I found the subject matter inherently interesting, not because it was compelling. It was a book that felt completed rather than written. It was serious, but not enjoyable.

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