Let’s Make A Reading List, Part 1: Absolute Essentials

September 9th, 2009 by John Krolik

So, as you guys may have noticed, basketball-related news has been a wee bit slow around these parts, and now that I’m back at school and living my life again, the well’s been a little dryer than it was. But all-star reader Nathan emailed me suggesting that I do a reading list, and it sounded like as good of an idea as any. Being a creative writing major and all, I read a lot of books of different genres, but here’s the thing: there are a lot of books out there. There are just so many genres of literature and books produced every year that a conversation about favorite books, even among my dorky creative writing friends, generally goes nowhere. So for this list, I’ll stick to my favorite sports books and pieces of writing, since I figure if you’re reading this blog it’s a genre that will interest you. All that follows is just one man’s opinion.

Absolutely, Postively, Must Read:

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis

The book that made me want to be a sportswriter and realize that I might actually be able to pull it off. In middle school, I honestly think I memorized this book. There’s so much that goes on in this book, and it’s so perfectly written, but the upshot of the endeavor for me was this: A lot of what you hear, a lot of the accepted cannon, is complete crap. The truth of what’s happening in sports is readily available, but most people would rather stick to their own set of beliefs than find it.

There’s so much data readily available, for free, and so many sides of every story, and yet most of it just sits there as everyone fits the events to their points of view. That’s why there will always be room for at least one more sportswriter in this world, even if there isn’t the money.

Talking about the stats stuff specifically, it’s more than a little ridiculous how much willful ignorance still exists about stats in sports, especially with how much evidence there is that they work. It’s like someone regarding Newtonian physics as a “school of thought,” following Aristotle’s ideas on natural forces, and then writing an engineering textbook. Some people consider me a “stats guy” (ESPN Feedback Mobius Strip!) around the blogosphere, especially on SLAM, which is, again, insane if you think about it. I am 20. I have not approached a math class since high school, and I wasn’t taking the good math classes there. I never made it to pre-calculus, for the love of God, and I didn’t blow the doors off the lower-level math classes. But I want to find things out, I keep an open mind, and I literally have three free bookmarks most people don’t have. And because of that, some commenters think I’m John Nash. Again, it’s insane. Seriously, read Moneyball.

Playing for Keeps, by David Halberstam

The best in the business at what he did-his sportswriting had the technical precision of someone who could have written about anything he wanted and the passion of someone who chose to write about sports anyways. Playing For Keeps is an absolutely vivid and engrossing portrait of the Jordan era in the NBA, describing every rivalry, character, franchise, and game in illuminating and painstaking detail without ever wasting a word.

The Jordan era was the closest thing I had to myths when I was a kid, and it’s probably the defining era of the NBA so far. So it’s just about a perfect subject, and how much story went on beyond the myths kids like me were hearing in 1st grade is staggering. And again, it’s impossible to overstate how freaking perfectly crafted this book is-every detail is crafted while somehow keeping a Big Picture. Players and front-office members fit into archetypes while keeping their depth and individuality. The nuances of the game for obsessives are there, as is the importance of the game for non-fans. Breaks of the Game was more innovative and is the more lauded work, but for my money, and for my generation, Playing for Keeps is the one to start with.

The Last Shot, by Darcy Frey

I’ve written like 20,000 words on this book over the course of my career, both directly and indirectly, so I’ll spare you a little bit here. It’s short, it’s enlightening, it’s amazing. I’ll just say that you should read this book before saying anything bad about a professional athlete’s character, ever.

Hoop Dreams

Not technically a book, but a must-watch piece of non-fiction nonetheless and the visual companion to The Last Shot-there are 4 or 5 moments in that unscripted documentary that have stayed with me in a way that nothing scripted will ever approach. (Update: via McMenamin, apparently Ben Joravsky did produce a book version of the documentary.)

“The String Theory,” David Foster Wallace

The eight of you who read this blog regularly probably know that Wallace is, beyond any semblance of a doubt, my absolute favorite writer of all time, so of course I think his sportswriting is among the best sportswriting ever done. Of his pieces on tennis, all of which are incredible, this one, published by Esquire in 1996 and later included in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, is my personal favorite.

Like with all of his nonfiction writing, he mixes a massive load of technical, obsessive, brilliant observations on his subject (his descriptions of the game of tennis), brilliant little pithy observations and one-liners to keep the piece moving along briskly and wonderfully, and then, before you even realize it, you’re reading a moving essay on the plight of modern professional athletes, and those chasing perfection in general, that would be a hugely important piece of writing even if Wallace didn’t know a tennis ball was round.

Remember how I said Moneyball made me realize I might be able to be a sportswriter? This piece actually discouraged me-I just can’t imagine ever being that good, period. My only consolation is that nobody else was or is, either.

Rick Reilly, “When Your Dream Dies.”

When I was in middle school, Rick Reilly was pretty much a god to me. My copy of The Life of Reilly, his first collection of columns, is completely yellowed, frayed, curled, and destroyed, and I recommend the whole thing highly. But if there’s one piece that’s an absolute must-read, it’s this one, which is as good as sportswriting can get. Reading this made me tear up a little bit and really and truly realize how powerful sports can be, rightly or wrongly. It’s Reilly at his best. Read it.

There’s a lot more great sportswriting out there, and I’ll talk about a lot of it later on in the off-season, but for now those are the absolute must-reads that immediately came to my mind. If you haven’t read this stuff, read it, and if you have recommendations don’t hesitate to let me know.

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