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book review

This undated photo provided by The New Yorker shows writer Roger Angell, who won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.The Associated Press

Roger Angell introduces his latest collection, This Old Man, by talking about what dogs eat for breakfast. The modern canine, he asserts, gobbles down his morning bowl of Alpo without so much as a thought, each day bringing the same bland culinary fare as the day that preceded it. Before we regimented their eating habits, pets of the past looked forward to a daily morning surprise – some leftover pot roast, a piece of stale bread, a scoop of scrambled eggs, a splash of milk.

"What I'm getting at here is the old phrase 'a dog's breakfast,' because that's what this book is," he writes. "A mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d'oeuvres, a teenager's closet, a bit of everything."

Angell is right in the sense that this is a wide-ranging, diverse collection, but it's far from a lumpy mess of unwanted discards. Though some pieces included are meaty and others merely light (a few paragraphs is not uncommon), there is a generosity to the entire offering that affirms Angell's long-standing and broad appeal. The book has no real narrative thread other than one man's writing career, but it's certainly a more-than-worthy one to examine.

Angell, now 95, published his first piece with The New Yorker magazine in 1944, and it's not an exaggeration to say he has gone on to become a kind of narrator of our times. He was the child of Katharine Sergeant Angell White, The New Yorker's first fiction editor, and the stepson of renowned essayist E.B. White, so it seemed inevitable he would end up in the writing life. He went on to become the magazine's fiction editor in 1956, and last year, after more than half a century of being one of the publication's most esteemed writers, published a much beloved piece on the tyranny of aging for their anniversary issue – a moving and insightful essay that gives this collection its name.

This Old Man is the kind of book you can, like Angell himself suggests, easily jump around in, relishing in the author's countless anecdotes, friendly conversational tone and vivid snapshots (literal and otherwise). Most inclusions are sourced from decades of New Yorker contributions – profiles, reviews, sidebars, commentary, humour and various online musings. Even his poetry finds its way into the spotlight, with a particularly fun look at the magazine's staff-sourced annual Christmas verse, "Greetings, Friends!"

Then, of course, there's what readers in the know will be most interested in – the U.S. National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee's signature sportswriting. Angell touches on everything from watching Bob Feller pitch, seeing Babe Ruth on the sidewalk, Jackie Robinson ("He did us proud, but at a cost beyond the paying") and, as Angell puts it, "postseason pain." He writes about early 1980s run-ins with Richard Nixon in the narrow corridor between the Yankee clubhouse and the press dining room, and comically refers to Barry Bonds as the "Lord Voldemort of baseball." A few brief pages on Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit are some of the best I've ever read on the subject, and Angell's "s'long" to the legend is worthy of tears.

With seemingly little effort, Angell consistently proves himself to be the most distinguished writer to have ever taken on the game. He first wrote professionally about baseball in 1962, when an editor had him travel to Florida spring training, and since then he has had an uncanny ability to make us care deeply about it (and the Yankees, for that matter) in ways we didn't think were possible. I have long said Angell's approach to the sport is more of an open-hearted critic engaging with a performance than a beat writer simply transcribing the events of the day. Though he can gracefully unpack a play-by-play better than any of his peers, he specifically appeals to those of us who see beauty in the sport beyond box scores and simple stats.

Above all else, this collection highlights Angell's gift for nuanced analysis and his ability to reveal the more emotional ramifications of our beloved pastime. There is a reason I – and many others – have long called him a favourite baseball writer, and here we see exactly why the man has become so beloved among readers, fans and sportswriters alike. It's also entirely charming that when writing about so many baseball greats, Angell was actually in the stands to witness their performances.

It's hard to think of another writer who could get away with such a disparate effort, compiling what is essentially a scrapbook of genius that is all at once astounding in its skill and accessible in its tone. Even his obituaries offer a tender sensitivity, not only in honouring those who have left us, but being humorous and heart-warming in the face of death. With this book, Angell further solidifies himself not only as one of the greatest writers in the game (baseball and otherwise), but one that has a knack for making the nostalgic seem familiar, the mundane seem magical and the uncomfortable easier to take.

This Old Man feels like an opportunity to sit down across a table with someone who has seen so much, and listen to him tell you the stories he most wants you to hear. It may not be neatly organized into convenient genre categories, eras or subject matter, but the disarray actually seems the most fitting and authentic way to reflect on an important life lived.