Monday, May 16, 2011

You Should Read Cardboard Gods

When I fell in love with Garth Stein’s Art of Racing in the Rain, it was in spite of the subject matter, not because of the subject matter.  I have a cat tattoo, which should be sufficient evidence of my feelings about dog books.  Yet despite not caring a whit about car racing, and active hostility toward dog books, Art of Racing in the Rain charmed me so much that I resolved to name my next pet Enzo.
I might need to start a Goodreads shelf because of Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods.  I never collected baseball cards.  My cousins Shane, Shawn, and Shannon did, and I looked through their collections a few times growing up.  This passing acquaintance with card collections made the language of Cardboard Gods a little familiar.  I knew there were different teams and colors and statistics on the back, anyway.  
My cousins loved sports, excelled at playing them, captained and co-captained teams with players who went on to start for Division 1 colleges.  No pros, but their hometown holds only 6,000 souls, and even fewer people lived there twenty years ago.  

I followed football and basketball because Syracuse is a college town and those are the two sports you must follow or they send you to Utica (laugh if you’re an upstate New Yorker).  It was also a means to connect with my cousins and the other men in my family.
Then I started college, delivering pizzas for Cosmos on Marshall Street, shipping and receiving for Bonwit Teller at the Carousel Mall, ushering at Syracuse Stage for my work study job, and working the deli counter at Leo & Sons Big M Supermarket in East Syracuse.  I was also in the Honors Program at Syracuse University, which allowed me to take more than the maximum 18 credit hours without paying extra tuition.  I also partied.  Somehow.  
Sports, TV, and any reading which wasn’t for a class got whittled from my life and swept away.  I found reading again after college, but never sports.  
Of course this post isn’t supposed to be about me, this is supposed to be about Cardboard Gods.  But that’s what the best memoirs do - get you thinking about your own life.  
Josh Wilker examines his life honestly, poignantly, and with little regard to how it will make him look.  He uses a different baseball card in each chapter as a metaphor for what he’s going through in that chapter.  It’s a brilliant hook.  It gives a decent memoir an edge, something extra which pushes it into a great book.  Cardboard Gods is about more than Wilker.  It’s about what makes us obsessively collect, it’s about trying to find common ground with family, it’s about why we love the things we love and need the things we need.  
I’m putting Cardboard Gods in a care package to my cousin, along with David Benioff’s 25th Hour and Lane Smith’s It’s a Book for his daughter.  As much as he loved City of Thieves, as much as he loves seeing his daughter’s face light up, I know Wilker’s book will be the best of the lot for Shannon.
If you’re not one for sports, you’ll love Cardboard Gods anyway.  But if you do love sports, or card collecting, be careful; you might become obsessed.