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A Sporty Reading List

Surely, there ought to be more sports novels than this?

Wodehouse, David Foster Wallace and other writers of the great sports novel

It is a bit surprising that there aren’t more books that use the sporting world as a backdrop. There is so much to learn from the overarching narrative of a sporting victory, from the quiet desolation of a last-minute defeat, from the unending grind that is the preparation for a tournament, and from the drama of failure and success.

Plus, the characters! Wouldn’t a Balotelli fit beautifully in the pages of the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire? Perhaps as an ill-thought out paramour for the Khaleesi? And can’t you just see Graeme Smith lead humans to victory against a ravaging horde of zombies? Just imagine Serena Williams as a Marvel Superheroine, with her superhuman forearm, strong desire to protect her family, and love for flirty tennis skirts.

But few books capture the metaphorical nature of sport with effect, and that’s a pity. Here are some of our favourites from the world of the fiction. To read our favourite non fiction sports books, click here.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

“…So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.”

No other work of literature comes close to describing the exquisite delirium of being a fan as expertly  as Fever Pitch. The author uses the fluctuations in the fortunes of his team Arsenal as a metaphor for his relationships with his family, as a signifier of the chasm between him and the woman he loves, and as an eventual crutch/impediment to growing older and accepting responsibility. Anyone who has ever supported a losing cause (and we all have, be it Marat Safin or the chance of India winning a World Cup in the 1990s) will identify with the supreme agony of his writing. And really, when you think about it, hasn’t it always been more fun to chase sinking ships than to reach the shores on an over confident, cocky winning barge? This one is for all those who enjoy the endless disappointments that come as part of being a sports fan just as much as they do the exhilaration of victory.

Gold by Chris Cleave

“LIFE is a big word, isn’t it? Let’s break it down into small segments. Let’s find a level of granularity we can plan around; we could say we’ll take it a month at a time, or a week at a time, and treat each of those modules almost as training units.”

Let’s get it out of the way. There are parts of this book that are absolutely detestable. I abhor the use of a sick child as a narrative contrivance even if it used by Charles Dickens penning snivelly Tiny Tim. But then there are some other aspects of the narrative- the description of how unflinchingly lonely it can be at the top, and of the training that goes into being a top athlete-that are beautifully etched. While the author wants us to feel for Kate Meadows, a woman who could have been an Olympic winner cyclist if she didn’t have to give it all up to take care of her sick child, it is the emotionally stunted Zoe Castle who steals the readers’ heart. Here is someone who recognizes the sacrifices that come from coveting an Olympic Gold, who understands how ephemeral that glory can be, but still wants it anyway. Sometimes the heart wants it wants, and the body is a vessel to reach for it. And nothing else matters.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

“When a New Zealand journo, with a nose resembling the beak of his national bird, asked me why Lankans have long names, I told him I would rather have a long name than a long nose. He replied he’d rather have a long you-know-what. Such is the insightful cricketing analysis that goes on in the press box.

For a sport that produces some of the best non-fiction writing (seriously, cricketing journalism compares only with jazz reviews in its turn of phrase and a sheer nerdish joys in the intricacies of the form), there are surprisingly few descriptions of the sport in fiction.  This bitter, hilarious and slightly uncomfortable book puts all of that to rest. Karunatilaka’s voice reminds us of our other favourite subcontinental satirist- Mohammed Hanif- in its ability to scathe, tempered with affection for the people he’s writing about. Ostensibly a search for the eponymous Chinaman- Pradeep Mathhew- a mythical spinner whose name has been erased from the record books- the book peaks into Sri Lankan history (cricketing and otherwise), to tell a rollickingly good tale that is more Sangakkara than Jayasuria in its quiet intelligence.

Mike and PSmith by PG Wodehouse

Cricket I dislike but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.”

And speaking of cricket writing, was there a better practitioner of the art than PG Wodehouse? His indolent characters are created expressly to wear crisp whites, direct a half-hearted shot or two into the covers, break for a lunch of sandwiches, and then say “right-ho brother”s or some such. Perhaps his best drawn out cricketing character is Mike Jackson, an all round good guy who plays unwitting sidekick to Psmith in his many adventures, but personally likes nothing more than a good old-fashioned game of cricket. He may just be a side-act to the travelling vaudeville of wit and adventure that is Psmith, but for his love of cricket, and his amiable goodness, he remains one our favourite Wodehousian constructs.

Match Point/Double Fault by Lionel Shriver

By our reckoning, Lionel Shriver is one of the smartest woman writers on the planet today. We love her portrayal of women as flawed characters with drives, passions, ambitions and thwarted desires. And though the last sentence may make them sound like characters of a Harlequin romance, they have an edge and an intelligence that is absolutely missing in any other fictional characters at the moment.
Willy Novinsky is one of the hundreds of almost-there tennis players, good enough to rank but perhaps just a little short of the temperament it takes to win. At the age of 23 she is also already too old for superstardom but perhaps still too young, and too sheltered (with a life spent in tennis coaching camps) for any kind of emotional maturity. What happens in this scenario when she finds herself in love with a younger Tennis Player- one with better prospects than her? And is it surprising that a girl who has been competing professionally since he early teens can’t quite stop keeping scores in a marriage?
A must read for anyone who enjoys the backdrop of Tennis or strong relatable female characters.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

“He knew what the Beats know and what the great tennis player knows, son: learn to do nothing, with your whole head and body, and everything will be done by what’s around you.”
Some of our favourite American writers keep returning to the sport of their childhood in their fictional worlds. Don De Lilo’s love for baseball shines in books as diverse as Underworld and Endzone, and John Irving keeps returning to a wrestling mat as a metaphor for life’s ups and downs and sudden reversals. But our favourite marriage between subject matter and sport may just be David Foster Wallace’s love for Tennis.  A Junior Tennis Player of some renown in his own teenage years, Wallace uses the fictional location “The Enfield Tennis Academy” as the background for most of his magnum opus Infinite Jest. His characters- essentially mouth pieces for his own world view- include a future tennis prodigy, the troubled owner/manager of the academy and young players unsure of their success in the later world. It is also perhaps not a surprise for readers who know him that the counter to his Tennis Academy of hopes and expectations is a rehab centre that smells of tragedy   While the subject of this great book is not ostensibly just tennis. the sheer magic of sports in its purest form and the corrupting influences that ruin it. both form a huge aspect of all of DFW’s best works. Highly recommended for lovers of tennis, footnotes and interesting writing.

What did we miss? Tell us in the comments below. Don’t be shy now.

Photo Credit: Éole via Compfight cc

2 Comments on A Sporty Reading List

  1. Vasudha Madhavan // July 1, 2014 at 1:33 pm // Reply

    Hey Hina! Thanks for this list – will add them to my reading list. You could also add biographies or maybe compile a new list of top sporting biographies. I can think of 2 recent ones that were truly impressive not just for the stories they told but for the values the characters embodied – ‘Open’ by Andre Agassi and ‘High Adventure’ by Edmund Hillary.
    I’m, of course, taking the liberty of adding adventure sports within the broader definition of sport!

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