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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.
Here in the United States, we have seen an increase in the ways that heritage is presented, marketed, and sustained – particularly in rural regions. Many small towns and communities have museums, historic sites, and heritage markers that – individually – may have challenges attracting visitors and interest. The new approach – which is also seen in broader forms of heritage designation, including at the World Heritage level – is to view heritage more holistically, at least in terms of geography.
As such many sites are linking together as part of theme-based heritage “trails” in order to both adequately reflect connections between sites as well as pool resources for marketing and promotion. Theme-based trails have demonstrated some success in rural economic development and can be important catalysts for identifying, recognizing, and sustaining important aspects of culture, heritage, and industry in rural and peripheral regions. Typical themes for trails include religious and pilgrimage routes, migration and trade routes, as well as industrial, cultural, and literary routes, although food-based trails have also become popular trail theme in recent years. It is assumed that all members of trails share common goals as to the purpose and outcomes of trail development, although this may not always be the case.
In any event, though many other forms of heritage – particularly those specific to popular cultures like music, literature, and food – have embraced the heritage trail concept, there appear to be relatively few sport heritage-specific trails that link sporting attractions, sites, places, and markers together. Perhaps the best local example of this concept might be the Packers Heritage Trail in Green Bay, that links important sites in the community to the heritage of the Green Bay Packers football team. On a broader regional basis, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is one example of a sporting trail, though the actual historical/heritage component this trail is perhaps not as prominent as would exist in other regional heritage trails like the Virginia “Crooked Road” music trail.
The seemingly limited use of sport heritage in trail development begs a few questions. First, are there other trails besides the ones listed above that are exclusively sport-based, particularly those that are regional driving trails (i.e.: require a car) rather than a local walking trail? Second, if sport heritage is not being used as a theme for trail development, why is it not being used? Has it not been considered, or has it been considered and dismissed? Third, if sport heritage has been considered and dismissed in trail development, what were the reasons? Does it have to do with marketability, or lack of sites/attractions in a region, or something else (e.g.: competition between sites)?
Sport heritage seems like it could be a strong theme for some kind of trail development – particularly around a common theme like particular sports (baseball, basketball, hockey) or famous athletes. Yet, there are apparently few examples of sport heritage being used in trail development, and I am curious as to why this is the case.
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.
Between having both a busy career and a young family, I don’t often have time for pleasure reading. However, as the day job took me solo to Italy recently, I was able to delve into a few books along the way. On book in particular – The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – captured my attention for several afternoons on the journey, and still has me thinking about it several days later.
Although The Following Game is, ostensibly, a cricket book, like any great sports literature it is about so much more. In part a travel memoir (the narrative is anchored by a trip to India, along with the author coming to grips with a cancer diagnosis) in many ways it is Smith’s autobiography, with cricket, poetry, his career as a teacher and author, and his relationship with his son Ed – a now-retired professional cricketer – as the vehicle for telling his story. It is very gently written, with Smith almost discovering the meaning of his life, work, and fandom along with the reader. It is leisurely in the best sense of the word, in so far as takes moments to breathe, to consider, to meander, and to reminisce. It is a wonderful and often deeply moving book.
However, one of the aspects I liked most was Smith’s use of the sports metaphor. Normally, I loathe sports metaphors (though, perhaps it is because I use them far too often in my own communication), but Smith does a masterful job of connecting cricket to life, to obsession, to the creative process, and to our own mortality. One passage in particular caught me, when Smith was lamenting the strange perversity of cricket – where it can be such an unfair game – did he draw a parallel between playing and the injustice of mortality (forgive, but I must quote at length):
If they had been born elsewhere, no doubt Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides would have been fans who understood the full horrors of the game, because only a Greek cricket follower would write ‘we are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward’, and Samuel Beckett was a cricketer, no surprises there, because only an Irish cricketer could write ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, you have no option, you just have to get on with it, we’re all born astride the grave, all innings must come to an end, we grow up only to die, all we can do is to keep the ball in play, to play the games of the mind and the body and the spirit and to keep playing and one day it will all be over.
Where’s the justice in that?
There isn’t any.
It just goes like that.
I can’t remember when it didn’t.
Similarly, he draws a parallel between batting and writing, where one must simply get out there and do it in order to accomplish anything:
I say to myself, however well you do, you cannot make runs if you are not at the crease. You cannot score runs in the practice nets, where extravagant shots tend to result in fantasy boundaries and fantasy triumphs – but carry the risk of dangerous self-delusion. Equally, you cannot write by talking about writing.
So…stop talking and sit down.
Pick up your pencil.
Or turn on your computer.
I suppose one’s reaction to a book is sometimes connected to a stage in one’s life. Much of the book is about the challenges Smith has in watching his son compete, and that I anticipate that I will probably share many of the same emotions if and when my son plays sports. I can certainly understand and appreciate as an academic the necessity to write and to not just “talk about writing” – particularly in the early stages of a career. And, being middle aged and having the first sense of my own mortality, I occasionally feel astride the grave. It’s not often that a book comes along at the right time – and, perhaps the timing of my reading it is colouring my reaction to it. However, beyond enjoying it and learning from it, I felt a stronger connection to it – somewhat in the same way when I first read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Like Hornby, many of the allusions Smith makes to particular matches and players are lost on me, but it is the wider lessons and truths – and how we try to understand our responses to them – that puts this book (at least for me) at a different level. If you can, do try and find it (particularly if you meet the middle-aged academic/sports fan with a family demographic).
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).