Reading List: This Sporting Life

In the last few weeks, there have been a lot of column inches in the review sections of weekend papers dedicated to the new US bestseller The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach‘s debut novel. I haven’t read it yet but I know it’s been mentioned as the next “Great American Novel” and has received generally excellent reviews from the press. I’m sure it’ll be a multi-faceted book with the usual helpings of love and life-changing experiences, but what I find interesting is that the background to the novel is baseball. Now, I certainly don’t understand the finer points of what looks like an upmarket game of rounders even though it’s always on screen in almost every American bar; however my point is more general: given how much sport seems to dominate our lives, it strikes me that there are relatively few novels in which sport features to any great extent.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any. In fact, in recent years, a couple of novels with a background sport story have been very successful. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is mainly a novel about the strangeness of New York and showed cricket in possibly the last city in the world where you’d expect to find it. The Damned Utd by David Peace featured a fictionalised Brian Clough struggling to maintain his high standards of football management when thrown the challenge of looking after Leeds United. I know this book divided opinion, written only two years after Clough’s death, but I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and the subsequent film starring Michael Sheen.

Looking further back, there have been novels or stories about rugby league (This Sporting Life by David Storey), golf (The Clicking of Cuthbert by PG Wodehouse), and pool (The Hustler by Walter Tevis). If you like your crime novel with a horserace as a setting (and you’ve read every Dick Francis book), you can’t beat the Saratoga series (Saratoga Longshot, Saratoga Swimmer etc.) by the American writer Stephen Dobyns, featuring the private detective Charlie Bradshaw. Moreover, if The Art of Fielding has given you the urge to read even more about baseball, you could try Ring around the Bases by Ring Lardner or any collection of his short stories, such as Round Up or Selected Stories. Lardner was a sports journalist in the American midwest and wrote his stories between 1915 and his early death in 1933, at the age of 48. Although not so easy to get your hands on today, his books capture the Prohibition Era and the American obsession with sports usually neglected by other countries.

Some of the best books about sport are the straightforward biographies or autobiographies, once you cut your way through the large number of ghostwritten “why I’m so great” books. Try It’s Not about the Bike by Lance Armstrong on cycling (and his battle with cancer) or the excellent King of the World by David Remnick about the rise of Muhammad Ali. Both books shed light on sports that don’t always get as much exposure as others. As for football, where lack of exposure certainly isn’t a problem, I’ve found the most enjoyable books have taken a more offbeat view of the sport. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is a good example of this, focusing on a die-hard fan’s obsession with Arsenal, though to be honest, compared to those of us who support a League One team, he can consider himself lucky. Another book in this vein is A Season with Verona by Tim Parks, a gripping story, part travelogue, part social history, where the author journeys around Italy with the often terrifying fans of Hellas Verona during one of its forays into the top division of Italian football. I couldn’t put the book down, desperate to discover the outcome of their battles, with the might of Milan and Juventus.

So, there’s quite a wealth of sports-related fiction; I’m certainly not saying the shelf of sporting novels is empty or of a low standard, just that compared to the number of novels featuring romance, for example, there are very few. It’s possible that the relative dearth of sports-based novels is because of the difficulty of capturing the sheer thrill and excitement of actual sporting events, whether in watching or participating—and with that in mind, I suppose it’s about time for my daily jog around the local park.