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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 30, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    Sports writing to knock you out

    Laurence Mackin

    Last week, I eventually got around to reading this excellent column by George Kimball, a US sports columnist for this newspaper and one of the best sports writers in the business (truth be told, I could write that sentence every week and it would still be true). If you haven’t discovered Kimball’s column yet, get cracking – it is one of life’s true pleasures.

    In this column, he praises the writing of John Lardner (Kimball is currently working on a collection of Lardner’s work), the youngest in a line of outstanding sports scribes – indeed, in the US, as Kimball points out, the phrase Lardneresque means a particularly adroit or deft turn of phrase. I’m trying not to pinch Kimball’s entire column here (and, admittedly, failing) but he does quote the opening sentence of Larnder’s article on middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, Down Great Purple Valleys: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

    Kimball calls this the “catchiest sports lead of all time” – disagree at your peril, or let me know if you’ve seen a better opening sports line in the comments below.

    So there you have it – two of the best sports writers that perhaps you haven’t heard of. Lardner was certainly a new one on me and it got me to thinking about what are the greatest books about sport that I’ve read. Looking at my disheveled book shelves, you would think I spent every other weekend scrabbling up mountains, but there is something about a good climbing book that is unbeatable. Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider remains one of the best in the genre. Written in 1959 with subsequent updates, it outlines the history of attempts to climb the fearsome North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland, including one particularly disastrous climb in 1935. Perhaps my favourite climbing book is The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev – before anyone starts going on about how great John Krakauer and Into Thin Air are, I strongly advise you to read Boukreev’s account. There are two sides to every story, and this is one that is well worth exploring.

    On the football front, one of the best books about the beautiful game (and you would think that there would be more quality books on the topic) that I’ve read has been Eamon Dunphy’s often overlooked and hard to find Only A Game?, a chronicle of a miserable season at Millwall in 1973-1974 that is the very antithesis of the Premiership’s Caligula-like largesse. Start scouring your second-hand bookshelves for it now. Oh alright I know you’ll find it easier online.

    If you’re of a non-bloodthirsty disposition, you could argue that it’s not even a sport, but the descriptions of the admittedly subjective beauty and the non-subjective skill involved in bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway are staggering. I think Hemingway is only in a competition with himself for best ever book title and this one takes it.

    For pulse-setting propulsive writing about all things athletic, though, it’s hard to beat perhaps the best sporting literary heavyweight of them all – Normal Mailer. His account of the Rumble in the Jungle, hinted at in his contributions to the brilliant documentary When We Were Kings, is the stuff of truly monumental sports writing. The Fight is slim, taut and powerful – read it in one furious sitting and you’ll realise that you are in the presence of writing and sporting greatness.

    So what are the best sports books you’ve read, and do you think the selection above is as wide of the mark as Tevez at the weekend? Let us know below, and if you know of sports columnists to rival Messr Kimball, or simply an opening paragraph that has to be read to be felt, then send your answers on the usual electronic postcard below.

    And to get you in the mood for a good punch-up, here’s Mailer in particularly animated form talking about that fight. Awesome.
    YouTube Preview Image

    • Matthew says:

      I couldn’t agree more about Only a Game. Dunphy, in true miserablist mode, tells it like it is. I think this is the best sports related article I have ever read:

      http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,766866,00.html (Remarkable and heartbreaking interview with Paul McGrath by Paul Kimmage)

      …and this more recent one is one of the weirdest, albeit non sports related:

      http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/16/100816fa_fact_friend (about the enigmatic and elusive genius that is John Lurie)

    • Teddydb says:

      I really enjoyed Futebol – Soccer: The Brazilian Way — http://www.amazon.com/Futebol-Soccer-Brazilian-Alex-Bellos/dp/1582342504

      Highly entertaining

      There’s a review here : http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/jun/01/featuresreviews.guardianreview11

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Matthew – I had that piece in mind when writing this post – It is one of the best interviews I’v read with a sportsperson and one of the best pieces on alcoholism I’ve read anywhere

      Teddydb – That looks interesting, I liked Barca by Jimmy Burns, huge amount of detail and plenty of history

      DM – Fantastic. Something to read over the desk lunch today then

    • bren says:

      Sheila’s, wogs and poofters the story of football in australia by Johnny Warren is a very good read

    • Robespierre says:

      Some of these are obvious choices but they are great books about sport and extreme pursuits:

      Norman Mailer – The Fight
      George Kimball – Four Kings
      Joe Simpson – Touching the void
      Gerry Thornley – Heart & Soul
      Eamon Dunphy – Only a game
      Sir Neville Cardus – Days in the sun
      David Frith – Silence of the heart
      Paul Kimmage – A rough ride
      Denis Walsh – Hurling the revolution years

    • spanishjohnny99 says:

      Boxing does seem to produce some great writing: King of the World by David Remnick; Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C Ward; Dark Trade by Donald MacRae amongst others

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Robespiere – I have read a few of those, Touching the Void I liked, more for the story than the writing.Four Kings is excellent.

      Spanishjohnny99 – Yeah, there is something about boxing that seems to bring out the best in writers, where as football seems to bring out a big pile of “Meh”. Maybe that’s a blogpost for another day.

    • DM says:

      Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand is a masterpiece, I don’t say that lightly. Completely disregard the Hollywood movie that it spawned! Tom Humphries has mentioned it as ‘the best sports book ever written’

    • Robespierre says:

      Silence of the heart is a particularly and peculiarly affecting book about cricket and suicide amongst ex cricketers (the rate is higher than any other major sport).

      The other cricket book “days in the sun” is also splendid but this time as much for the writing as the content. It has a similar quality to it as TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom only it deals with the crack of leather of willow instead of rifles in Arabia.

      The gladatorial aspect of cricket along with the waxing and waning natures of 5 days tests lends it a gladatorial aspect (much like bull fighting and boxing). What is different is that this is quite simply a clash of wills and skills between a batsman and bowler. The one trying to outfox the other.

      Outside the strict sporting sphere although sporting related is Neverland by Joseph O’Neill about a dutchman playing cricket in NYC after 9/11 (the author was raised in the Netherlands and plays cricket in NYC but the book is fictional).


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