A number of years ago – over a few beers, of course – a late colleague and I sketched out a reading list of popular sports books, thinking we might one day co-teach a class that explored the different iterations of this literature. We grouped the books under various descriptive categories, most of which had a more socio-cultural bent – for example, the fan memoir (Fever Pitch – Hornby), race (Beyond a Boundary – James), the “warts & all” athlete memoir (Open – Agassi), labour relations (Well Paid Slave – Snyder), cult of positivism/objectivism (Moneyball – Lewis), expose (The Fix – Hill), and so on. Unfortunately we never did get to teach our class, but that conversation – and our list – came to mind recently when thinking about the connection between literature and sport, and the idea that certain sports or sporting practices are considered to have a significant literary heritage.
I suppose part of this though was inspired by my following of the Ashes, and that much of what I have learned about cricket in recent years has not come from watching the sport but by reading about it. Despite living in an age of media mobilities, cricket is one of those sports that is still relatively difficult to find (both live and on television) in North America – thus, my own fandom has been built both by the significant number of tomes written about the sport as well as outlets like The Guardian’s Over-by-Over commentary which often exhibits a literary flare. Certainly, cricket is one of those sports – perhaps along with baseball – that has inspired a vast amount of literature. In fact, this weekend’s Cricket Writers Podcast talked about this very thing, noting that it is because of time, the pauses in action, and the (often) leisurely pace that cricket lends itself to literature. Similar arguments have been made for baseball as well – that other sports like basketball and hockey are too frantic to inspire poetry – though I would argue that it is as much because cricket and baseball are summer sports, and that the pace of summer leisure often matches the rhythm of these sports is part of the reason they have inspired so many to put pen to paper. I suppose it is also that, in those cold winter months, reading about summers past and leisurely days to come is very appealing. In my own experience, I read about baseball far more in January than July.
Still, I wonder why it is that other sports are not known for their literary heritage in the same way that cricket and baseball are. Most sports have popular literature “classics” – and sports like soccer/football are certainly not lacking in volumes of written material. Maybe it has to do with who watches these sports – after all, it appears that authors seem to be attracted to baseball and cricket more than other sports (a point made in the aforementioned Cricket Writers podcast). Maybe the term heritage or literature is considered high-brow, and therefore only applicable to certain sports? Still, there are other sports – boxing comes to mind – that certainly can’t be considered leisurely and have a recognizable literary heritage (and, again, seem to attract literary-types).