My essay on CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary got me to thinking about my favourite sports books. And, after much torment and tussle, I finally settled on my list of the sporting best in print. And before anyone mentions it, I know that I have missed out Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. It may be everyone else’s favourite sports book, but it’s not mine. If you are intrigued enough to want to read any of the books, click on the cover.
1 CLR James, Beyond a Boundary
I did consider not giving Beyond a Boundary the No 1 spot. But only for the briefest of moments. James blends politics and memoir, history and journalism, biography and reportage, in a manner that transcends literary, sporting and political boundaries. Beyond a Boundary is, as I wrote in my review, a book in the image of CLR James himself: ‘Brilliant, complex, contradictory, beautifully observed, deeply insightful, but sometimes also romantic and naïve. And, of course, boundary-crossing.’ What do they know of sport that do not of CLR James know?
2 David Storey, This Sporting Life
Jack London meets Albert Camus on a rugby pitch. And in a Yorkshire accent. When David Storey – one of the great postwar northern realists – told his father, a miner, that he wanted to go to art school, his father was outraged. Storey had to sign with Leeds Rugby Football Club to help pay for his education. Out of his experiences came This Sporting Life. First published in 1960, it is a portrait not simply of sporting life but also of working class life in an England still trapped in the aftermath of the Second World War and yet to come to terms with an Empire that was no more. Brutal and beautifully observed, it is one of the few sporting novels that truly work.
3 Norman Mailer, The Fight
The story of the Rumble in the Jungle – the world heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974 that has become the stuff of legend. As has the book, too. The principal character in The Fight is neither Ali nor Foreman, but Mailer himself. Mailer writes about himself in the third person, first as the ‘interviewer’ and then as ‘Norman’ or ‘Norm’. It’s weird, outrageously egotistical and quite dazzling.
4 Joe Simpson, Touching the Void
Simpson and fellow climber Simon Yates mount an ill-prepared ascent of Siula Grande in the Andes. Simpson breaks his leg near the summit. Yates has to lower Simpson in an agonising descent in the midst of a snowstorm. Barely able to see, Yates lowers Simpson over a crevasse. The rope that connects them is inexorably pulling both in. If he were to cut the rope, Yates might save himself, but he would condemn his partner to certain death. What does he do? Yates’ decision to cut the rope became a matter of great debate, and not just in climbing circles. Extraordinarily, however. Simpson survives, and even more extraordinarily manages with a broken leg, and in almost inexpressible agony, to climb out of the crevasse and descend the mountain. A meditation about the human spirit and about friendship and moral obligation wrapped up in a gripping adventure story.
5 David Winner, Brilliant Orange
On the surface, Brilliant Orange is about the development of ‘Total Football’, the fluid, mesmeric Dutch style of football that transformed the beautiful game in the 1970s, and of which Barcelona (and Spain) are today but a pale imitation. At its heart it is an exploration of the contradictory nature of Dutch society and of the Dutch psyche. It is about the history of colonialism and memories of wartime occupation and collaboration colliding with a present created by mass immigration and a new Europe. It is about unresolved tensions, in sport as in politics, between a desire for self-expression and a recognition of the importance of the collective. It is also about the enigma of unfulfilled genius, of a footballing style that dominated the imagination but failed the ultimate test on the pitch, particularly in the ‘Lost Final’ of 1974, when a great Dutch side led by Johann Cruyff lost to West Germany in the World Cup final in Munich, a traumatic result whose shadow still falls over Dutch football – and Winner’s book. Brilliant Orange can, at times, be nostalgic and sentimental, but it is perhaps the closest that football has ever got its own Beyond a Boundary.
6 AJ Liebling, The Sweet Science
There are few sports, perhaps, that more lend themselves to great writing than boxing. So, it is not surprising that there are more books about boxing in this list than about any other sport. And while Mailer’s The Fight is a unique account of a unique fight, there has been no better writer on boxing than the American journalist AJ Liebling. With his stylistic grace and sense of history, he is more old-fashioned than Mailer both in his prose and in his judgments. A collection of essays originally written for the New Yorker in the 1950s, The Sweet Science tells of champions like Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. It also tells of the out-of-the-ring artisans: the sparring partners, the cornermen, the trainers. It is wonderful about the timing, the pacing and the rhythm inside the ring. It is equally astute about the grifting and the graft, the corruption and the cons, the convention of low life that is boxing outside the ring.
7 HG Bissinger, Friday Night Lights
A book about sporting obsession, but in a completely different register to one like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Bissinger spent a year chronicling a season of high school football in the small town of Odessa, Texas. In a town crushed by economic collapse, with a soaring crime rate, deep-set racism and bleak prospects, everyone defines themselves through the school football team and lives vicariously through it. Crowds of 30,000 (out of a population of 90,000) flock to see Friday night games. Football, Bissinger writes, ‘had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children. That was the nature of sports in a town like this. Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery. It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves.’ A harsh, yet sympathetic, account of sport and modern life in small-town America.
8 David Remnick, King of the World
More books have probably been written about Muhammed Ali than Ali has made wisecracks. King of the World is unquestionably the best. Remnick underscores Ali’s significance by comparing him to the two great black heavyweight champions before him: Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Patterson was the ‘Good Negro’, deferential, decent, desiring to please. Liston was the ‘Bad Negro’, a man who had served time for armed robbery, had associations with the mob and of whom even John F Kennedy told Patterson that ‘You’ve got to beat this guy’. Ali refused to submit to either stereotype. ‘I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man’, Ali tells Remnick. ‘I had to show that to the world’.
9 Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go
Perhaps the most unusual book on this list, this is a novel about the esoteric Japanese game of Go. It is also a meditation on loss and national trauma. The Master of Go tells the story of the eight-month long 1938 tournament between the old, seemingly invincible, respected master Honinbo Shusai and the up-and-coming challenger Minoru Kitani (called Otaké in the book). It was the last game of Shusai’s career; he lost and shortly afterwards died. Kawabata, who in 1968 became the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, began writing the novel in1938. He did not finish it till 1951. The story of the old master defeated by the new pup becomes an allegory for Japan’s wartime humiliation, and for the destruction of the old ways. ‘From the way of Go’, Kawabata writes, ‘the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled’.
10 Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer
As a young reporter in the 1950s for the New York Herald Tribune, Roger Kahn covered the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose feats and failures have since become the stuff of baseball legend. This was the Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges. This was also the Dodgers that seemed forever destined to lose the World Series to the Yankees. The Boys of Summer is in part a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn, about racism and anti-Semitism, about the social significance of the Dodgers. It also about the life of the athlete after the game is over. Khan tracks down many of the stars of that Dodgers team and traces their subsequent trajectories. In stitching these two parts together, Kahn tells the story of conflict and change in postwar America. Central to that story is Jackie Robinson, the black baseball genius, who faced raw hostility both from the crowds and from his opponents, but whose refusal to be intimidated helped challenge apartheid in the sport. The Boys of Summer is often sentimental and nostalgic. It is also an evocative history of baseball and of America.