Sports writing to knock you out
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.