Letter from... a sports reading list

How many do you have, he asked?
Six, I said. He had four.
You are definitely going to do better in the exams, he told me.
A school classmate and I were discussing how many unread issues we had of the magazine The Sportstar. We were invested deeply in sport and the magazine was our window into the world of Steffi Graf and Mohammad Azharuddin, my favourites then. If I had more unread issues of the magazine, it meant I had spent longer studying for the exams—and hence destined for better results. The other day, prompted by a Facebook post, I clearly recollected this conversation, which happened many years ago.
The post asking for recommendations for sports books got me thinking: As adults, we equate the summer season with heat, fatigue, irritation, mangoes, and a lack of appetite. But as children, summer was a joyful time of holidays and sport—playing and reading about it (particularly, if you grew up in small-town India).
In the olden days, television showed you what happened in matches, but newspaper and magazine articles told you what happened off the field as well. I binge read Sunil Gavaskar’s Sunny Days one summer holiday, fascinated to have access to a player’s personal thoughts in the days before sanitized syndicated newspaper columns and Instagram.
What makes books on or by sportspersons or books on sport itself interesting?
While the rest of us mortals are still dealing with homework and what to do during vacations, top athletes are already single-mindedly pursuing excellence. Nadia Comaneci, for example, was an Olympic champion in gymnastics at 14.
While the rest of us are beginning to choose careers or chase promotions, sportspersons are already “retired”. They travel the world, deal with a large number of people, endure more pain and ecstasy and grow up faster than the rest of us—Sachin Tendulkar is a case in point.
Their lives are stories of persistence, determination and complications, which can be motivating and heartbreaking and oh-so true. It takes passion, and pain, to get to the top of the sporting world. For example, when jockey Pesi Shroff, who had retired after a long, illustrious career, was asked in an interview what he would do next, he said, “eat”. Jockeys have to keep their weight strictly under control, which restricts their diet.
Sports books combine the best attributes of fiction and non-fiction.
I am an average—and pretty slow—reader. But the friend’s post reminded of some books I have read and suggestions from other friends allowed me to add to a growing reading wishlist.
I am concurrently reading Joe Moran’s Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, which though not a sports book, has a chapter analysing the reticence of George Best and Bobby Charlton and how it manifested in their games. Comaneci’s visit to India recently sparked my interest in Lola Lafon’s The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, which tells (and reimagines) her life as a young girl in a country under a totalitarian government, detailing the rigours of a tough sport like gymnastics and shows us how truth can have so many versions.
Coincidentally, my last few books have been sport-related. Like the Manchester United footballer’s autobiography, I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is brutally honest, as is to be expected. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner is an older book that unravels the country’s dominance in the sport in 1970s. Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan is a great nostalgic journey and answers that eternal question: How did Javed Miandad play under Imran Khan without rebelling?
A cinematic book is The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, which is the true story of the University of Washington rowing team that won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics—watched by Hitler. Not surprisingly, the rights to produce a film have been bought by a major Hollywood studio, according to news reports.
One of the most entertaining books you will find is Andre Agassi’s Open, an honest, brisk autobiography of a witty and interesting tennis player. Nick Hornby’s much-acclaimed memoir Fever Pitch—which has since its release in the early 1990s become a classic—gave birth to a generation of Arsenal fans.
The over a decade-old Mumbai marathon has produced a generation of runners, and wannabe runners, in Mumbai at least. I was one of them some years ago and found, invariably, two books that are most recommended. One is the captivating Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra Runners and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen by Christopher McDougall. I am reminded of the book every time (happened more than once) I see actor-turned-full-time runner Milind Soman pounding on the chaotic streets of Mumbai on steaming afternoons, running barefoot.
The other is the more reflective What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. He makes you feel like getting up and setting off for a run right then, preferably while continuing to read.
The moment you Google a list of great sports books or ask for suggestions, a few names crop up automatically. Some of them are Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (not read it, but I have seen the movie); Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein (in possession, but yet to start); and the award-winning book on Muhammed Ali called King of the World by David Remnick.
All this research and “Facebooking” has given me some solid suggestions for the next few months (or years). These are now added to my Amazon/Flipkart wishlists—it does not necessarily mean I will buy them but allows for the option of getting some as gifts. They include Jon Krakauer’s true story of an Everest expedition Into Thin Air; A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein on golf; another award-winning biography Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan; and Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos.
Upon a relative’s insistence—she has asked me several times if I have read these—I am also considering two books on Nike—Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight and Swoosh: Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There by J.B. Strasser—and Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and The Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sports by Barbara Smit.
The flipside of having a digital wishlist, though, is that you add to it recklessly. I have had String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis in my list for three years now—it’s gone so far down that I don’t see it anymore. Frank Brady’s Endgame is collecting dust in our bookshelf—not intentionally, of course. I was magnetically pulled towards the book—it traces the rise and fall of the enigmatic chess champion Bobby Fischer—after reading its review by Garry Kasparov some years ago.
I will get through them, at some point. What sums up my reading is a small, about 90-page, book I bought in 2012 and still have not read. It’s called Don’t Buy This Book Now! The Art of Procrastination by John Perry.
But let’s stay positive. Summer’s just begun—there’s plenty of hot sporting action yet to come. In between that action, maybe a little reading can help inspire—true life tales of valour can be so much more uplifting than fiction or Marvel Studio releases. Like me, you can make up for the lack of sporting talent by reading about others who have an abundance of it. Maybe there are some suggestions here to get started with.
Letter From… is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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