Arts of the Contact Zone
By Mary Louise Pratt
Ways of Reading
, 5th edition, ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petroksky (New York: Bedford/St.
Whenever the subject of literacy comes up, what often pops first into my mind is a conversation I overheard eight
years ago between my son Sam and his best friend, Willie, aged six and seven, respectively: "Why dont you trade
me Many Trails for Carl Yats . . . Yesits . . . Ya-strum-scrum." "Thats not how you say it, dummy, its Carl Yes . . .
Yes . . . oh, I dont know." Sam and Willie had just discovered baseball cards. Many Trails was their decoding, with
the help of first-grade English phonics, of the name Manny Trillo. The name they were quite rightly stumped on was
Carl Yastremski. That was the first time I remembered seeing them put their incipient literacy to their own use, and I
was of course thrilled.
Sam and Willie learned a lot about phonics that year by trying to decipher surnames on baseball cards, and a lot
about cities, states, heights, weights, places of birth, stages of life. In the years that followed, I watched Sam apply
his arithmetic skills to working out batting averages and subtracting retirement years from rookie years; I watched
him develop senses of patterning and order by arranging and rearranging his cards for hours on end, and aesthetic
judgment by comparing different photos, different series, layouts, and color schemes. American geography and
history took shape in his mind through baseball cards. Much of his social life revolved around trading them, and he
learned about exchange, fairness, trust, the importance of processes as opposed to results, what it means to get
cheated, taken advantage of, even robbed. Baseball cards were the medium of his economic life too. Nowhere
better to learn the power and arbitrariness of money, the absolute divorce between use value and exchange value,
notions of long- and short-term investment, the possibility of personal values that are independent of market values.
Baseball cards meant baseball card shows, where there was much to be learned about adult worlds as well. And
baseball cards opened the door to baseball books, shelves and shelves of encyclopedias, magazines, histories,
biographies, novels, books of jokes, anecdotes, cartoons, even poems. Sam learned the history of American racism
and the struggle against it through baseball; he saw the Depression and two world wars from behind home plate.
He learned the meaning of commodified labor, what it means for one’s body and talents to be owned and
dispensed by another. He knows something about Japan, Taiwan, Cuba, and Central America and how men and
boys do things there. Through the history and experience of baseball stadiums he thought about architecture, light,
wind, topography, meteorology, the dynamics of public space. He learned the meaning of expertise, of knowing
about something well enough that you can start a conversation with a stranger and feel sure of holding your own.
Even with an adult--especially with an adult. Throughout his preadolescent years, baseball history was Sam’s