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For the last two years, I have written blog posts recommending some sports-centric books suitable for beach-reading. That is to say, these books need to a) be somehow about sport, and b) need to be substantive – but not weighty (perhaps both in tone and tome, as it were). Though we are a few weeks into summer at this point, there are probably a few weeks left of beach time (at least for us in the northern hemisphere) and a chance to catch up on some summer reading. I will also point out that these are simply some of my recommendations – the excellent Sports Biblio website is a treasure trove for sports lit, and is certainly far more in-depth and complete that my meagre offering here. Finding a theme for this years list, I’d venture to place my recommendations into two categories – deeply bucolic and idyllic, and nostalgic in, perhaps, the most romantic and bittersweet way. Enjoy!
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – Larwrence Booth (ed.)
Few things signal the beginnings of summer more for me than the publication of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Though the physical almanack is, perhaps, a little unsuitable for beach-reading per se, the “Shorter” Wisden – available for e-readers – includes all of the best written components of the Almanack without the many scorecards from county games and the like (though, personally, I download the shorter version for my Kindle and order the physical copy for my library). Wisden is perhaps most famous for its “Five Cricketers of the Year,” each year offers many original insights about the state of the game (2016’s version includes discussions ranging from the history of cricketing celebrations to exploring why there aren’t more British-Asians in first-class cricket), while the review section includes all of the annual round-ups of cricket miscellany: from cricket books and film to cricket on social media to the market for cricket memorabilia. There is also a wonderful obituary section which includes often moving write-ups of first-class cricketers and administrators great and small, the recaps of England’s international team, the domestic leagues, and cricket around the world. Every summer, I piece through Wisden – reading bits here and there – and it never fails to make me dream of perfect summer days at some county ground.
Sweet Summers – JM Kilburn
“Cricket is of us, as the very breath in our lungs, makes poets of the incoherent and artists of the artisans. Not one of us that takes a bat or bowls a ball or watches a game but gives and receives a precious heritage.” So says JM Kilburn, longtime cricket correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, in this collection of his best cricket writing. Though Wisden is steeped in heritage, it is very much focused on the game as it is now. This collection, on the other hand, reveals a past where cricket – particularly at the county level – was truly important, and poetic, and a goodly heritage. Kilburn’s writing is idyllic and bucolic and wonderful in all of the ways that sentimental writing ought to be, with the added component that it is never saccharine and always done with the greatest affection. I find myself reading and re-reading sections of this book often, particularly when I find that life has gotten in the way of perfect leisure, and it reminds me of what once was, and could be again.
Not by a Long Shot – T.D. Thornton
With apologies to boxing, few sports have seen such a vast decline in popularity – at least in the United States – as horse racing has in the past 80 years. That decline – and, perhaps, the romance that goes along with a sport that is still deeply loved by a few hardcore and dedicated stalwarts – is the focus of Thornton’s book about the (now closed) Suffolk Downs track in Boston. In equal parts autopsy and love letter, Thornton explains the decline of the sport while still demonstrating vast admiration for those places and people that keep it going.
Up, Up, and Away – Jonah Keri
The Montreal Expos seem like a strange topic for such an engrossing book that is both autoethnography (Keri was a die-hard Expos fan) and history, but Keri does a remarkable job of weaving personal narrative, historical narratives, and interview material together to discuss the rise and fall of Canada’s first Major League Baseball team. Though the Expos left Montreal in 2004, there is a growing movement to expand or relocate to the city again. Given what Keri describes in this book, Expos 2.0 will have a long ways to go to live up to the drama, personalities, and fun of their predecessors.
Last summer, I wrote a blog post about some of my favourite sports-centric books that I would recommend for “beach” reading. That is to say, “beach reading” in that they are sports-based books with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class. They should be page-turners, but also be engaging, critical, and interesting as well.
With that in mind, here’s the 2015 edition of Sports Beach Books. Of course, few (if any) of these books were released in 2015, some are very well known while others are quite obscure, but I found each to be engrossing in different ways. Happy Reading!
The Last Great Fight by Joe Layden
I haven’t yet completed this book yet, but if sleep lost to reading “just one more chapter” is any indication, this is a surefire page-turner. Layden’s book looks at the intersecting lives of Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas and how (spoiler alert) Douglas’ upset defeat of Tyson in Tokyo in 1990 strangely resulted in the downfall of both fighters. A fantastic read thus far!
Eric Liddell: Pure Gold by David McCasland
Perhaps the least interesting aspect of Eric Liddell’s life, the Scottish runner made famous in the film Chariots of Fire, was that he was a gold medal winning Olympic athlete. McCasland’s book covers Liddell’s unlikely athletics career that became just a small part of his international mission work. An engaging read about a fascinating man.
Boy on Ice by John Branch
The other, darker side of sports biography’s, Branch explores the life – and tragic decline and death – of hockey enforcer Derek “The Boogeyman” Boogaard. Engrossing, but often an upsetting read.
Stolen Season by David Lamb
Lamb, a long-time war correspondent in the Middle East, returns home from his assignment tired and jaded. He decides to take a summer sabbatical and rediscover both his childhood love of baseball and the country he no longer recognizes by travelling the country in a beat-up motorhome watching minor league baseball games. In many respects, both a baseball version of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charle and a time-capsule of minor league baseball and the United States in the early 90s (most of the teams and stadiums Lamb visits no longer exist), it is a reminder of the beauty, simplicity and romance of an American road trip.
The Last Flannelled Fool by Michael Simkins
In some respects, an cricket-based English version of Lamb’s Stolen Season, Simkin’s funny, nostalgic book takes him on a road trip of sorts through England’s cricket landscape, as well as his own cricketing memories. Though understanding the appeal of cricket is probably necessary to enjoy this book, I found myself enjoying Simikin’s travels to the cricketing places that once were so important to him, though the realization that both he and the places had irrevocably changed was, surprisingly, very poignant – particularly for a book firmly rooted in self-mocking humour.
On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates
Probably the weightiest in terms of ideas and content of all the books on this list, nevertheless Oates’ collection of essays about the people, history, ethics, psychology, and geography of boxing is a page-turner. Once I picked it up, I rarely put it down.