I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature. Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise. Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book. Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class. Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list. You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.
With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.” Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective. Some are very well known, others are a little obscure. In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.
The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often. I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book. Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.
Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue. Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications makes sports gambling an international phenomenon. While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results. And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.
Open by Andre Agassi – Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read. It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.
Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later. This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom. And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)
Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.
Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs – If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of Terry Sawchuk, one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures, is well worth a read. There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.
Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini – Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe. As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.
The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.