I got this idea from Chris Brown over at Smart Football. While my list won’t be nearly as awesome and heady as his, I found this exercise fascinating and fun. This won't be a list of my favorite books, the books you'll most be impressed that I read, or even the books I know most well. It’ll be an honest attempt to enumerate the books which have shaped my thinking, and my writing (with a slight tilt towards sports). In no particular order . . .
The Live Albom (Vol. I-IV), Mitch Albom. Albom, like Rick Reilly and Bill Simmons after him, has evolved into an out-of-touch caricature of the amazing sportswriter he once was. But Mitch Albom, “perhaps best known now for the inspirational stories and themes that weave through his books, plays and films,” was named the best sports columnist in the country by the AP Sports Editors thirteen times.
As an early reader, and a huge sports fan, I used to take the Detroit Free Press sports section to bed with me every night. My mom loved his writing too; we waited in line together get his first column collection, “The Live Albom,” autographed. He was amazingly cool, took time out to chat us up, and signed it:
To Tyler, my biggest little sports fan--and to [my mom], who's raising him!I learned about Eddie Robinson in that book. I learned about Len Bias and Pelle Lindberg. I learned about Stevie Wonder, yes, but was more intrigued by Czech defector Petr Klima’s wild first days living in the “free world”. I was entranced by Albom’s ability to simultaneously endow sports events with great symbolic weight, and make them insignificant against the backdrop of the lives of the people involved. Ironic, then, that his current writing projects don’t interest me in the slightest; I haven’t read any of his “inspirational” books.
The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallway. This is as much about Zen philosophy, and removing conscious roadblocks to success, as it is about tennis. Recommended to me as a 'tween, I read it and loved it and probably didn't "really get" 3/4ths of it.
The fundamental lesson, though, penetrated: let that part of you which grimaces and grunts with every stroke go, and let that part of you which does differential calculus on the fly to calculate the path of the ball perform at its peak. It’s something I’ve tried, and mostly failed, to do ever since.
How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. Card, my favorite fiction author, takes great pains to explain that this book is specific to the SF and Fantasy genres, and NOT a treatise on writing in general.
He’s wrong. This is the most clear, well-thought-out, damn-this-guy-is-good, that-makes-so-much-sense guide to idea harvesting, milieu creation, character development and motivation, and consistency of language that I know of. I can’t consume fiction (regardless of media) without the ideas in this book bubbling up out of my subconscious.
Pitching to Win (How to Pitch), by Bob Feller. Feller’s writing wasn’t as incendiary as his fastball, but he delved extensively into both the physical and mental aspects of pitching. He explained how to warm up your body and mind, how to approach the pitcher-batter battle, and how to compensate for circumstances: field dimensions, heat, humidity, umpires, fatigue, and simply not having your best stuff that day.
The highlight of the book was a walkthrough of a simulated game (e.g., “Now it’s the sixth inning, you’re starting to get tired. The shadows are longer and the temperature is dropping . . .”). The overarching lesson was this: if you prepare yourself to succeed, and you visualize yourself succeeding, and you wholly believe you will succeed, then success is neither difficult nor surprising.
If Tiger Woods wrote a book like this about how he plays golf, it’d sell a hundred million copies in a month.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. This, of course, is Card’s most popular novel, and the one that introduced me to his writing. I deeply identified with Ender’s struggle against his peers, who ostracized him for his intelligence—and against his elders, who variously praised and punished him for the same trait.
The book has been criticized for the amoral, violent actions of the protagonist. But Ender was a good kid, trying desperately to make sense of the world around him. Every adult told him different things; many were lying through their teeth to manipulate him. To say this resonated with me would be a gross understatement.
The most overlooked part of Ender’s Game, published in 1985, is what Ender’s siblings were up to. Armed with nothing more than their parent’s Internet (not called that) accounts, they became noted commenters on political blogs (not called that)—and got hired as professional bloggers for major news websites. Then, they worked together to shape public discourse—and ultimately, public policy.
When I first read this, I was in eighth grade; I burned with desire for such a platform, such a voice. Of course, as a young teenager, convinced that I held the answers to all the world’s problems. If only anyone would listen to me . . .
Ironically, now that I have such a voice, I talk about sports. I find political blogs toxic and insufferable; I’m offended most by their self-delusion that they shape public discourse, and public policy.
Missing Links, by Rick Reilly. Ostensibly a comedy about golf, it’s as much about father/son conflict, economic stratification, and honest, loving relationships as golf. To be fair, it’s a lot about golf. To be honest, it’s really funny.
To be even more honest, it's the kind of book I am preparing myself to write, visualize myself writing, and wholly believe I will write (thanks Bob Feller!).
The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli. This is a jawdroppingly brilliant work by a man trying to ingratiate himself to the ruler who imprisoned him. How do you get back in the good graces of a tyrant? Write for him, and dedicate to him, Tyranny For Dummies.
Satire though it may be, The Prince still contains an uncomfortable amount of apparent truth about power, virtue (both real and perceived), and the source of a ruler's legitimacy amongst his subjects. I am so taken by Machiavelli's work that I occasionally Tweet as Niccolò Machiavelli, Social Media Marketing Guru.
The Football Hall Of Shame, by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo. This book is both criminally funny, and a wonderful look back through the history of the game we love so much. From the 222-0 beatdown Georgia Tech put on Cumberland, to the bounced-game-check world of the World Football League, I learned more about the game of football through this retrospective of its worst moments than through any purported pigskin history book. The only sad part is, if they ever revised and re-printed this classic, Nash and Zullo would have to add six chapters dedicated to Lions.