GREG Proops’s current podcast series, The Smartest Man in the World, is the impetus behind the publication of his noteworthy book, The Smartest Book in the World. The author, a witty member of the improvisational comedy show Whose Line is it Anyway? started his podcast in 2010 — and the material for the book is based on half a decade’s worth of output.
Proops’s recorded monologue contained a weekly hour to two of humorous observations, anecdotes, wit, incisive social commentary, audience interaction, and the satirisation of crudeness. His podcast takes detailed forays into history, sports, politics, ancient history, American history, and baseball. His humorous, well-intentioned advice for young fans who write to him is gracious and funny; he records in diverse locales around the world, and this cosmopolitan spirit is reflected in the book. Its full title, after all, is The Smartest Book in the World: A Lexicon of Literacy, A Rancorous Reportage, A Concise Curriculum of Cool.
With 12 chapters on baseball, five on films, seven on music albums, an opinionated chapter on pharmaceutical indulgences, and a chapter-length elegy by Proops to his favourite beverage, the book doesn’t fail to discern the fun parts of popular culture. There are 13 poems (each with a discursive introduction by Proops), film reviews and introductions to famous paintings Proops likes by listing which ones he would steal and how.
The most unique part of the book pays homage to a creative past-time on the podcast: nine chapters are devoted to fictional baseball teams with fielding positions divided amongst historical characters and personalities — who are or were the most famous or infamous in their field, with corresponding baseball positions, hilariously explained. Malala Yousafzai was included in an initial podcast version of the most influential women’s baseball team but I was sorry to find that she couldn’t make the cut in the published version of the women’s team.
This book’s focus on history — both ancient and modern — is to be commended. Proops tries to educate his readers on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He shows how, even compared to modern celebrities, these two touchstones of the ancient West exceeded the vulgarities of today in both ‘barbarism’ and decadence. Pakistani readers will appreciate Proops taking note of Multan as the city that shot an arrow through the lung of Alexander the Great, injuring him. (Multan, though, paid the price after falling to the Greeks in the bloody denouement of its siege.)
The film reviews are commendable, as Proops suggests quality flicks that entertain. He gives a welcome introduction to which classic or foreign films to watch, such as those by Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. And, in a witty manner, he convinces his readers to watch black-and-white movies like Casablanca and The Big Sleep. The author dethrones Citizen Kane for Casablanca as the greatest Hollywood film; he reasons that Casablanca is better because of the way the characters grip you, alongside the film’s moving plot of love, sacrifice, and the peril of refugees amidst the merciless dangers of World War II.
In our current global refugee crisis, the largest since World War II, it may help to look back to the 1940s and see how people sympathised with victims of monstrous regimes that oppressed and displaced millions.
In the Sidney Lumet chapter, the author pays homage to the film oeuvre of this successful but very un-Hollywood like, New York-based auteur. And in ‘Baseball III — Satchel Paige (1906-1982)’, Proops’s love for Satchel Paige and baseball provides a lesson on the crippling effects of systematised discrimination. Paige was one of the best American baseball players but being an African American when US baseball was racially segregated, he was restricted during the prime of his career to the racially-separated and now defunct Negro League. This discrimination prevented him from reaching his full potential and also deprived white audiences from enjoying his skills as a baseball player. Books that incorporate lists of the greatest films, books or music albums generally seem unwieldy.
However, Proops takes a more personable approach by providing short lists of great movies to see and books to read. He makes this a ‘curriculum of cool’ and creates a collection of delightful classics, while his selection of books is given with capsule reviews. This is, after all, the Smartest Book in the World and 12 pages of mini-book reviews are a good addition for the novice. The only serious drawback to this super smart volume is the lack of a table of contents.
The Smartest Book in the World: A Lexicon of Literacy, A Rancorous Reportage, A Concise Curriculum of Cool
By Greg Proops