The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge
All my life, I have loved ordering my things. My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third. The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).
When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.
At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability. Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!
The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.” In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”
His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.” Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine. Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe. Aren’t there? I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?
Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths. The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one: “we do not know what the universe is.” The rug is starting to slip. Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”
Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was. Or maybe, I always felt there was. In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.” What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.
I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood. Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all. And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected. Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.
But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional. If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?
Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair. For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.” And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”
He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation). Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.
So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.
And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.
Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.
There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy. But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”
Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies. How might that look? I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.
Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):
We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).
Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion. And you’d be right. It really works.
Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:
So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.
But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.
Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list. So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.
But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading. In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading. For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all. Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.
We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities. Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person. Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty. Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.
Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.
Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.
It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them. And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading. But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful. I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.
This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child. Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process. Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training. But for what?
Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning. But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.
It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish. But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.