When I was a kid, four, maybe five, my dad took me to see a baseball game. He bought me a Marlins hat and a big, chewy soft pretzel, and sat me down to teach me about the great American pastime. As the story goes, it was about 15 minutes after the National Anthem ended that I asked, “Papa, can I read now?”
Thus begins and ends my relationship with sports. To this day, I understand sports about as much as sexist people assume women do, and I would still much rather read a book than watch LeBron James dunk a basketball or ... I can’t even think of a football player’s name to finish this analogy.
Despite my general ambivalence, some of my favorite books are books about sports. So with Super Bowl Sunday nearly upon us, I rounded up 10 of my favorite books about sports. They’re great enough to enjoy whether you’re reading them during the big game or just after.
1. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
There’s a pretty mediocre Drew Barrymore rom-com based on this book, but pass on that and go for the novel by Hornby. This is his first book and details his formative relationship with football, or, as you probably call it, soccer. Fever Pitch was made a Penguin Modern Classic in 2012, and for good reason: It's a stunning account of how something so simple as a spring game of soccer can transform into something deeply prolific.
2. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This novel is so good that I spent the month after I finished it being convinced that I’m actually very interested in baseball; in reality, Harbach just tricked me into thinking that I am. This is — and, yeah, I’ll admit this on the Internet, whatever — the only book that has ever made me cry. It chronicles four years in the life of Henry Skrimshander, a baseball prodigy who finds himself in over his head at Westish College. Harbach writes of baseball in a way so stunning that I found myself envious of people who connect to sports:
You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
3. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
At first you’re all “Why would I ever read a book called Shoeless Joe???,” then you learn that this was the book that inspired Field of Dreams and you immediately have it shipped overnight. If you haven’t seen Field of Dreams, well, first of all, do that right now — but, for the time being, allow me to clue you in on the plot: Ray Kinsella is a farmer living in Iowa with his wife Annie and their daughter Karin. He hears voices one night telling him to build a baseball field in the middle of his corn crop, and he does so, because … whatever. The field attracts the ghosts of baseball legends, and also J. D. Salinger. Yes, Salinger himself makes an appearance in Kinsella’s novel, and it is equal parts insane and wonderful. Shoeless Joe was written during Kinsella’s time at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and it may be the loveliest account of schizophrenia out there.
4. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Despite the exhausted title (Let’s all agree to retire “What We Talk About When We Talk About TK” titles this year, okay?), Murakami’s book about running is an innovative take on the sports memoir. The author runs an average of six miles a day, six days a week, and has competed in more than 20 marathons, which would be impressive for anyone but is especially remarkable for someone as committed to their craft as Murakami. (It does, however, make you wonder if he gets more hours in the day than the rest of us.) In the book, Murakami argues that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.” It’s a beautiful book that is about so many things, but fundamentally the activities that keep us sane.
5. Anything David Foster Wallace Wrote About Sports Ever
In all fairness, anything Wallace wrote about anything ever is going to be spectacular. He was an incredibly gifted writer, in both his fiction and his non-fiction. He was also an avid sports fan, and sports were hugely influential in his writing. Infinite Jest features the Enfield Tennis Academy, but, let’s be honest: Infinite Jest is not a sports book.
Wallace did, however, provide us with plenty of sport-centric writing in his non-fiction. His piece on tennis player Roger Federer is included in Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of his essays, and his essay on Michael T. Joyce is still available online at Esquire. For someone who literally spent a tennis lesson making sand angels on the court (Sorry, mom!) to say that I was captivated by a piece of writing on tennis is a pretty big deal.
6. Women on Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle Edited by Cynthia Baughman
After reading Sarah Marshall’s piece on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal over at The Believer, I became a bit obsessed with how the media handled the story. I bought Women on Ice, and it was exactly the fuel I needed for my fire. In it, writers take on the task of discussing how this incident underscores perceptions of women in 20th century America in a way that will interest just about anyone, including fans of Tara Lipinski’s 1998 Winter Olympics performance or otherwise
7. The Natural by Bernard Malamud
Here’s another book sure to trick you into thinking you love baseball when, in reality, you just like to read. The Natural tells the story of Roy Hobbs, whose baseball career is thrown for a curveball (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) when he is shot for reasons that remain unclear, leaving him struggling to get his career and his life back on track. The novel is based on the shooting incident of Eddie Waitkus, a player for the Philadelphia Phillies — but I only know that thanks to Wikipedia.
8. Whip It by Shauna Cross
Here’s another solid book that got remade into a mediocre Drew Barrymore movie. Whip It is about Bliss Cavendar, a misfit teen trapped in the teeny-tiny town of Bodeen, Texas. Bliss’s mother dreams of her daughter becoming a pageant queen, but all that glitz and glamour isn’t for Bliss. It isn’t until the teen finds a roller derby league in nearby Austin that she’s able to come into her own, stand up to her mother and, eventually, be portrayed on the big screen by Ellen Page.
9. My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
This memoir details Conroy’s senior season as starting point guard on his college basketball team. The majority of the book is dedicated to his tumultuous relationship with his coach, as well as what it feels like to lose. Even if you’ve never played on a sports team, this book about friendship, teamwork and growing up will resonate.
10. The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey
Frey’s book chronicles how basketball on the courts of Coney Island is a means of escaping a life of crime and poverty. He writes with stunning detail about the dreams of four of the neighborhood’s most promising players. It’s a heartbreaking and astonishing look into how basketball can be far more than just a sport.
Did we miss your favorite sports-related book? Let us know in the comments. And for more non-fiction suggestions, check out an article from our friends over at Flavorwire. Happy Super Bowling this weekend!