walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Bill James, _Popular Crime_, the review

Here's the short form: this is a fantastic book, and some of the reviews out there seem to fundamentally misunderstand important aspects of it. I highly recommend it, with the expectation that you (a) won't agree with everything James has to say and (b) some of it will likely irritate you (and possibly worse) but (c) you'll start thinking about a lot of things that you probably don't ordinarily think about and/or in a way in which you do not ordinarily think about them.

The subtitle is: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. The cover picture seems to have a long list of other names/tags/etc. of victims and/or perpetrators of particularly famous crimes.

James is reviewing what could be loosely termed the genre of Crime Stories. He considers what goes into newspapers and he's clearly read a truly awe-inspiring number of books about crimes. The overall layout of the book is chronological and the geographical scope is the United States. Along the way, he presents some of his own innovations in how to think about crime and justice. One of these innovations is an approach to weighting evidence to see if it adds up to enough to convince one that this person committed this crime. Another innovation is a way to assess the quality of a physical description. A third innovation is a typology of Crime Stories in terms of how "big" the story got and what were its characteristics.

All of the above (the survey of Crime Story, the innovations, the book (dis)recommendations) is then used in service of James' central argument: Crime Story is how we think about certain hard policy problems, and while there may be real problems with the way crimes are covered by the media (and those problems might even have specific solutions and talking about _that_ is part and parcel of the discussion as a whole), overall, People Chewing Over Some Horrifying Event does far more good than harm. Treating Crime Stories as somehow Not Serious or something that Serious people Don't Pay Attention To is an error.

Bill James is ever-present. He mentions family members. He talks about his childhood. His opinion is always right there -- and he's utterly honest about it. His presence -- his provocatively opinionated presence -- is an invitation to engage in the debate, to consider what he suggests, and then, instead of just dismissing it, to mull over what else might be True, or what else might be tried.

I bought this book because when I listened to James on (IIRC) the Stephen Colbert Report, I really _liked_ him. I recommended this book when I was only a fifth of the way into it, because I had so much respect for someone who was prepared to precisely and concisely highlight his bias at all times. And having finished the book (which I do not agree with in every respect, and which at times irritated me), I have no regrets at all. I'm sort of looking forward to rereading it, in fact. And I'm a little jealous of you, if you haven't read it yet, because of how much fun you are about to have.
Tags: book review, non-fiction
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