I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read in the third quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about some of the more interesting of the other books I read that quarter, but not about the uninteresting ones or the ones I don’t feel like discussing.
If there was a theme for the quarter, it was early twentieth century physics (and some math). Books on those areas included (parts of) Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals, David Lindley’s Uncertainty, Rebecca Goldstein’s Incompleteness, James Gleick’s Richard Feynman biography Genius, and Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Ranking? Gleick was the best, and quite good. Rhodes is also good, though the introductory part on the background on developments in atomic physics leading up to the late 1930’s was old news to me given the reading I’ve been doing. Those are the two I would recommend more generally. There was a significant gap to Lindley and Goldstein, both of which are worth reading if you have a specific interest in the subject, while the Brooks was not to my taste. Bonus points to Gleick for ending with approximately the same Feynman quote I used in my On “Analytics” post. The big question is now whether I understand Godelian incompleteness or quantum mechanics; the answers are no, not really and probably about as well as I ever will without actually buying a quantum mechanics textbook and going through the math, something I know I’m extraordinarily unlikely to ever actually do.
When I acquire a non-fiction book, one of the things I often do first is page through the end notes, if there are any, and bibliography. This is not always a totally reliable guide (I enjoyed the References section of Tyler Cowen’s book then titled Create Your Own Economy more than I enjoyed the actual text), but it’s typically a good one. Each of the 39 pages of bibliography to Ian Morris’s War! What Is It Good For? had at least one title I’d read or was on my to-read list, a feat I’m not sure had been accomplished by any other title with a bibliography than ran more than a couple pages. Naturally, I really enjoyed the book. The argument, that war isn’t the worst thing ever, won’t appeal to everybody, but I’m perfectly willing to consider potentially unpopular argument and think there’s something to it, or at least you’d have to explain to me why Morris is completely off base.
Unless I’m missing them, there are few good books for a popular audience on recent, or at least post-bubble Japan, and most of them seem to be by Economist correspondents. David Pilling’s Bending Adversity is for the most part quite good, as long as you accept the book for what it is-a look at post-bubble Japan with some more in-depth explorations of what happened to Fukushima.
My infatuation with the webcomic xkcd has faded, to the point where I check it perhaps twice a month instead of “It’s 12:05, why don’t we have a new comic yet.” But I have enjoyed Randall Munroe’s What If? column, where he takes scientific looks at occasionally absurd hypothetical questions, like what would happen if you tried to fly an earth airplane near different bodies in the solar system. The book is cleverly titled What If? and is a mix of existing material from the blog updated weekly and new material. There are no deep insights here, but I really liked it for what it was.
I also read a passel of fiction, little of it noteworthy. I am still pretending to read War and Peace, which mostly consists of having it on my coffee table and looking at it every so often instead of actually reading it; apparently, stating my plans to read it here has only a minimal or no pre-commitment effect on me. I have instead begun reading the heretofore-released books from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, something I knew I would do eventually after getting the first five books in e-book last December, and am currently most of the way through A Game of Thrones.
As always, de gustibus non disputandum est.
Hey, I wrote this post the 13th day after I “wanted” to back in the first quarter, too. I read some about football, yet still without any desire to go back to reviewing each book I read. These are the football-related books I finished the third quarter of 2014, none of which I have yet reviewed on here.
I actually started Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load … and the Load Filled Up a couple years ago, and only got about 50 pages into it before giving up. As far as “giving up too early” goes, this is up there with my failure to read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and evidence of a terrible character flaw on my part. I found the first 50 or so pages a bit of a slog once again. Then the season begins, and Three Bricks really begins to shine. One of my most common laments about football books is they’re not very good by the standards of books; Three Bricks more than passes that test in addition to being insightful into the lives of football players. Strongly recommended.
I’ve mentioned before my interest in Fox Conner. There is no good biography of him, despite him being worthy of a biography, in part because he made it hard to write a biography of him by destroying all of his letters late in his life and even the young people he mentored, like Dwight Eisenhower, are dead and therefore unavailable to be interviewed about him. That was the problem Chris Willis had with his book on Joe Carr, The Man Who Built the National Football League. Unavoidably, Built ends up feeling a bit antiseptic, as Willis is forced to impute Carr’s motivations and in some cases his precise actions. Just how much role Carr versus people like George Halas and other early owners played in transitioning the NFL from the 1920’s days of small towns to the mid-1930’s league of teams in big cities (and Green Bay) is a nearly impossible question to answer in the twenty-first century, as official league minutes cannot give you the answer. Built is also pretty focused on Carr’s work as NFL president to the exclusion of his other activities; that Carr was president in the 1930’s of a number of baseball minor leagues is mentioned in passing. A more comprehensive biography, or one with better sources available, could have discussed how that came to be and how his work there compared and contrasted to his NFL work. Also, I’d like to see Roger Goodell running, oh, the Pacific Coast League, the Midwest League, and the New York-Penn League instead of spending all his time at 345 Park Avenue. Only for those with a strong interest in the early NFL.
Curse my obstinacy and antiquated rules, for I wrote (part of) a book and didn’t plug it here. Yes, Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the latest version of our annual, came out, and I didn’t devote a post to it for the petty reason that I hadn’t bothered to finish reading all the college football parts of it. For my money, it’s still the best season preview publication on the NFL out there. PDF available in addition to the dead tree, for a discount, and it looks great on the iPad. Disclaimer: as an author, I got a free copy and a share of the royalties from purchases.
Robert Smith’s The Rest of the Iceberg is another book I started a few years ago but didn’t actually finish. When the library remaindered a copy, I snagged it and eventually polished it off. Written after his retirement at a time when he probably could have continued to play effectively, Iceberg details Smith’s more-interesting-than normal personal story, including his conflicts at Ohio State and his struggle to achieve productivity with the Vikings. More thoughtful than most NFL players, Smith’s thoughts on non-NFL subjects still looked like the insufficiently considered opinions of most people in their 20’s, thought that just leaves the book with a down ending. The more interesting question is reconciling Smith the man who saw he was more than a football player with Smith the media member, an interesting exercise beyond the scope of the book (which was published in 2002). Only for real die-hards.
In contemplating Dave Revsine’s The Opening Kickoff, I wondered if I really wanted to read another book on the early history of college football? It seems like well-trod ground, with little interesting to add, but Revsine managed it. The most interesting part was the story of Wisconsin star Pat O’Dea, which I hadn’t been familiar with before. Recommended to those with an interest in the subject.
Perhaps the most important story of the past decade or so of college football is the transition of the SEC from pretty good conference to all-powerful behemoth, where schools that are not real traditional powers like Ole Miss and Mississippi State are at the top of the polls. I would like to know more about how that transition happened. Notwithstanding its title, Ray Glier’s How the SEC Became Goliath is not the book I was looking for.
With those, I was at 11 football books read through nine months. I’m currently at 13 and should be at at least 15 by the end of the month. Based on reading trends, that’s a bit under my pace of 19 per year over the past six years, but a few more ephemeral titles or taking some entries off the back list can take care of that.
This season, I’m writing a weekly stat-based look at Sunday Night Football for NBC Sports. As I do for Total Titans and This Given Sunday (where I’m contributing again), this will be an archive of my, and only my, columns, updated whenever I feel like it.
2014-10-01: Not as easy as 1-2-3 for Patriots, Bengals [third down struggles]
2014-09-24: Graham, Witten, and how productive tight ends differ
2014-09-19: Steelers, Panthers, and their different screening processes
2014-09-11: Finding soft spots in Chicago, S.F. defenses [run D up middle]
2014-09-04: Can Colts sack Peyton? The stats say no
What a quarter, and the less said the better. I read some about football. I read more about other things, including particularly this past quarter, when I didn’t finish a single book about football (unless I spent the rest of tonight trying to finish my current read, which I won’t). Now I will tell you about the more interesting of the non-football books I read, but not the uninteresting ones or the ones I otherwise don’t feel like mentioning.
I actually finished Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder last quarter, but decided not to talk about it until this one. The thing about “science in the age of Romanticism” is just what the heck is Romanticism anyway? Reading Holmes inspired me to finally bother to acquire Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution, which confirmed that (a) “what Romanticism is” is about as vague and ill-defined as I thought it was, and (b) #TeamEnlightenment. Both the Holmes and the Blanning are quite good. N.B. the Blanning work is a slim volume; it was exactly what I was looking for, but know what you’re getting. It’s from the same Modern Library Chronicles series as Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution, which I believe I’ve recommended on here before and is the best “short” book I’ve ever read.
I stuck with the nineteenth century for Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, an older but deservedly well-known book about tracing a cholera outbreak to a single London well in the 1850’s, as well as Rosalind Williams’ The Triumph of Human Empire, mini-biographies of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson, none of which I found interesting or insightful when it comes to attitudes toward progress and technology in the 1800’s, more or less the nominal topic Williams was addressing.
I also read Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys. Lewis is still a tremendously skilled crafter of narrative non-fiction, though (a) the Malcolm Gladwell blurb on the back got me thinking of a Lewis-Gladwell meeting as the narrativitypocalypse with all the nuance as the 2013 Oakland Raiders run game, a cataclysm that may actually have occurred at whatever event the two attended that was broadcast on BookTV on Sunday and (b) Lewis wrote an entire book about high frequency trading where he somehow managed not to come into contact with a single one of those villainous high frequency traders, an act so prodigious it reminds me (for some reason) of the story I heard in law school about how a case of whiskey was involved in the drafting of the Securities Act of 1933.
I also read a passel of fiction, little of it noteworthy. Roger Zelazny’s The Great Book of Amber may be best experienced on acid, an experience I’ve intentionally denied myself. I can’t see how Natchez Burning is the first volume in a trilogy, unless Greg Iles is taking the 24 route when it comes to setting up villains (and it’s about the worst “first book in a series” I’ve ever read when it comes to finishing the first book with a satisfying conclusion while whetting the reader’s appetite for future book(s)).
I was of two minds of Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C. On the one hand, it was a nicely done history of a time period that we don’t know that much about, where Cline didn’t overload on pretending like 1177 was The Year That Mattered. On the other hand, this Amazon review that notes Cline’s book feels like a compromise between separate and to an extent incompatible masters that ends up unfulfilling has a point. Some books are probably best read by those not too familiar with the subject matter, and this may be one of them. Recommended for what it is, perhaps?
My favorite book I read this past quarter was Ken Dryden’s The Game, a superb and insightful memoir by the former Montreal Canadiens goalie. Published only after he was playing but based on notes he took during what he knew would be his final season, Dryden was able to speak honestly and frankly. It’s not a tell-all like a Ball Four, which is good because we know a lot more about the sometimes dissolute habits of athletes than we did when it was first published 30 years ago. It is honest and forthright, told by somebody smart and perceptive about what he recognized was a special and privileged existence. A goalie, a position apart from the rest of the time but one with a unique influence on the course of a game. A law school graduate, an attorney in training, not normal for a professional sport. A player for the Montreal Canadiens, in a city divided by language at a time (the late 1970’s) when that division could be particularly intense. A Canadiens team that was in the last years of perhaps the greatest dynasty in American professional sports. I don’t often use my highlighter a lot on ebooks, but there were a couple passages I made sure to mark here, including the best discussion of fighting in hockey I’ve ever read. Not just a hockey book, but probably the best athlete book I’ve read (I’d need to re-read Instant Replay to do a fair comparison) and one of the best sports books I’ve read period. The only bad part of it is I planned to finally get through Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy, and Dryden’s book was so good it made that sort of similar book (athletes, 1970’s) a harder slog than it should be.
Beyond About Three Bricks Shy, which I should finish in the next couple days, I’ve finally started War and Peace. I’m sure I’ll also be reading other football titles the next couple months, since I do every year at this time. If my ambition holds, I want to finally get to Wilson’s Thirty Years War after War and Peace, but we’ll see about that.
As always, de gustibus non est disputandum.
I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read the first quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about the more interesting of the other books I read, but not about the uninteresting ones.
I finally slogged my way through all of Infinite Jest. Despite some absolutely brilliant passages, my final verdict ended up pretty similar to the reaction I had about 50 pages into the book, namely that I got how smart David Foster Wallace was, so there was no need for him to keep showing over and over just how smart he was. I would also be more impressed with the unusual, non-chronological order if he actually wrote the book that way, which I kind of doubt. I don’t regret having read it, but good editing could have made it a much more palatable book for me.
Stuart Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939 is a nice concise book of a little-known but perhaps very important part of twentieth century history, namely the Japanese-Soviet clashes in Mongolia leading up to the titular August 1939 battle (called Khalkin Gol by the Soviets). Adadpted from Goldman’s master’s thesis, I believe, so perhaps a touch dry for some readers, but I liked it.
I read Candide my junior year of high school and enjoyed it, but was curious about how it held up. With a free Kindle version of reasonable quality, that was easy enough to check. The footnotes helped me catch some of the eighteenth century references I would have missed otherwise, and I found I still enjoyed Voltaire’s dark satire.
If I had to pick a word to describe Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, it would be “twee.” That I read it the same month I finished Infinite Jest probably did not help; Wallace’s aggravation was at times brilliant and very funny. Hamid never reached the same heights for me. I can see why people liked this book, but I concur heartily with the Amazon reviewer who called it “too contrived for its own good.”
Reading a book you have seen other people describe as their favorite or one of their favorites is an interesting exercise. Some books, notably Catcher in the Rye, made me really wonder what about the time and place and mental state in which they read the book. Others are actually good. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson takes some potentially great material, namely the history of science, and produced a fantastically entertaining book with it. I read the first hardcover edition, which unsurprisingly has some scientific errors that made it through the editing process. I recommend picking up a later edition, as I’d assume most of those were corrected.
Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War is another book I’ve seen on other people’s favorites shortlist. It’s easy to see why, as I found it a very engaging example of that classic tale, the genius who fought against the system. Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory, which I understand systematized and quantitized what had previously been analyzed largely through anecdata, is even a useful example for us analytics types. Unfortunately, the book is as much hagiography as biography, though. In Coram’s telling, Boyd has personal flaws, but not professional ones. I would read more of an academic, rather than journalistic, explication of Boyd’s work, which I’m sure is out there.
I have enjoyed several of P.J. O’Rourke’s prior books. His latest, The Baby Boom, started off reasonably amusing, but I rarely even chuckled over the last half-plus of the book. Members of the Baby Boom generation may find it more to their liking. I recommend his conversation with Dave Barry and Eat the Rich, plus On the Wealth of Nations as an alternative to reading Smith’s masterwork (which I have not done).
Persuasion was the latest stop in my extremely slow read of Jane Austen’s works. It was pretty straightforward and predictable, but I liked it. Not as much as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but more than Emma.
I enjoyed Eric Jager’s Blood Royal, on the assassination of Louis of Orleans in 1407. The denouement is less satisfying than that I remember from his The Last Duel, but that’s history and the way of the powerful in Middle Ages France for you (and other times and places, but this is not the time and place for that conversation).
My recent non-football acquisitions of note included Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution and Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace. The first couple weeks of April has left me in a bit of a light fiction rut. Once I get out of that, I will get to those and other related reads. Plus, maybe I will actually get to War and Peace.
Pardon the lack of content here lately. I have a suitably long, esoteric, wonky piece on a subject of minimal actual importance most of the way done, but in need of further revision. That may end up here, or it may end up on Football Outsiders. I also have another long piece that will end up at Football Outsiders in the works, though I may not finish that until the weekend. I continue to write reasonably regularly at Total Titans-team blogging is sometimes fun and interesting, sometimes annoying and frustrating, but most importantly, it’s a way to force myself to write regularly as opposed to going through the typical blog life-cycle. That’s especially important because my most regular content here were link dumps, for which I can use Twitter if I care to, and book reviews.
And, on the book review front, I keep reading books without any particular interest in writing reviews of them. These are the football-related books I’ve read this year, none of which I have yet reviewed on here.
The good news is that Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is not just another book on the 1985 Bears. That is good because Steve Delsohn’s Da Bears already covered that ground, and pretty well. Unfortunately, in his effort to present a different book than Delsohn’s, Cohen instead finds an unsatisfying middle. His take on the 1985 unit is more personal, which I found unenlightening and annoying to read (I don’t care enough about my feelings about a particular team to write them down, let alone Random Fan X’s). An additional part of his attempt to write a different book than Delsohn’s was to write more about the Bears beyond 1985. This is a perfectly reasonable idea, but he told me nothing important about the Bears I did not already know. The largely positive Amazon reviews make me wonder if I’m not the best reader of this book. I think if you’ve read your Delsohn and know your pro football history, you won’t find much to hold your interest here. If you haven’t, your mileage should be greater.
I actually thought Daniel Flynn’s The War on Football: Saving America’s Game could drag me out of my book reviewing torpor. That lasted perhaps 20 pages into the book. Unsurprisingly given that Flynn writes for the American Spectator, this is more what I think of as a political/affiliational book. Before I made the executive decision to stop caring so much about politics, I read plenty of those types of books. Some, though not many, were actually good and could be read profitably by someone who did not already agree with the author. I did not find War on Football to be one of those.
Were there any valuable takeaways from Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, Nate Jackson’s memoir of his time in the NFL? No, but I still found it a very enjoyable library read.
Just off the title, I was worried Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game by Allen St. John and Anissa Ramirez would be a poppy re-hash of Timothy Gay’s Football Physics (which I am reminded I never bothered to review)*. As the excerpt published at Football Outsiders made clear, it thankfully is not. It’s still poppy, and unfortunately I ended up auto-texting this book nearly as much as I did Flynn’s. By auto-texting, I mean that given the subject matter and the link, I could easily picture in my head the text an author would write on the subject. Using the excerpt as an example, no huddle + chaos theory = taking advantage of initial conditions, like Peyton Manning catching the Titans in base personnel and going straight down the field in the game in Indy I attended in 2006 after struggling to find consistent success up to that point in the game. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I did Flynn’s, but that enjoyment proved pretty ephemeral.
*-I ended up not reviewing Football Physics for a simple reason-I couldn’t write a review I found even remotely satisfying. My experience reading the book was bound up with my experience taking the class that at most high schools would have been called AP Physics C. How much of what Gay was telling me what just a straightforward application of Mechanics 101 from that dimly-remembered experience with Halliday and Resnick, and how much of it was really advanced stuff? I never answered that question for myself and could not see that making for a satisfying review, yet I couldn’t write a different review. So, I just dropped it.
Last week, I wondered on Twitter what we should think of a book where the author straightforwardly presents quotes where the speaker is absolutely and unequivocally wrong in their recall of certain facts. It would be quite tedious to independently verify every fact in a non-fiction book, so you as a reader are trusting the author’s ability to present facts accurately. Such quotes at least degrade the amount of trust you have in an author-a friend put down Boys Will Be Boys after Chad Hennings’ quote about leaving the Air Force to join the Cowboys because of Clinton defense cuts (spoiler alert: Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas when Hennings joined the Cowboys). What if there’s no one quote but two that clearly stood out as unequivocally wrong? What if the same book also has some copy-editing howlers, referring to “Lovey” Smith and “Mark Tressman”? Even if you can get beyond those, be warned Tom Callahan’s The GM: The Inside Story of a Dream Job and the Nightmare That Go with It does not deliver quite the inside scoop that the subtitle might lead you to believe. Callahan did seem to spend a good bit of time with the 2006 Giants in Ernie Accorsi’s final season as general manager before retiring, but this isn’t really a Bringing the Heat-like portait of a team- or even GM-season. Rather, it’s a series of portraits of Accorsi’s life and career and work as a general manager. Some of that info, if you’re willing to trust it, seems pretty good, like Accorsi’s scouting report of Eli Manning at Ole Miss. On the whole, though, it’s not as deep a book as the one I was hoping it would be.
I have no particular plans for what football books to read next, aside from noting that after I spent all that money on Anatomy of a Game and Finding the Winning Edge, I really should go ahead and read them already. My only football book acquisition this past quarter was Ray Glier’s How the SEC Became Goliath, though I did also pre-order Bruce Feldman’s forthcoming The QB, slated for a November release. Non-football reads post for this 1Q 2014 coming soon.
Jon Lauck, in The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, p.47 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013): “[Allan] Bogue and other Prairie Historians expanded on this tradition of economic history by promoting the broader use of statistical and quantitative methods. Bogue said statistics were ‘like drug addiction. I realize that I am hooked, regret it periodically, but keep coming back.'” (footnotes omitted)
When we go to investigate it, we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we’re trying to do, except to find out more about it. I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell possible.
From Daniel Kahneman, as quoted in Freeman Dyson’s review of Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders in the March 6, 2014 New York Review of Books: “We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true.”