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.”
As I did for 2013 and previous seasons, this is a collection of my, and only my, Total Titans posts. While Total Titans is almost all my work these days, this post also collects questions I’ve answered for other people and other Titans blogging-related work. This post will be updated periodically, a.k.a. whenever I have time and feel like it.
2014-07-31: 2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: WR
2014-07-30: 2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: FB
2014-07-29: 2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: RB
2014-07-28: 2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: QB
2014-07-25: 53-man roster prediction as training camp opens
2014-07-24: Ray Horton’s 2013 Browns defense: Top 10 or bottom 10?
2014-07-23: Ken Whisenhunt and fourth downs
2014-07-15: More on Al Woods
2014-07-14: More on Zach Mettenberger
2014-07-11: More on Marqueston Huff
2014-07-09: More on Avery Williamson
2014-07-03: More on DaQuan Jones
2014-07-01: More on Bishop Sankey
2014-05-30: Breaking down the Titans’ 2014 UDFA signings
2014-05-15: Overviewing the Tennessee Titans’ 2014 draft
2014-05-11: Recapping the Tennessee Titans’ 2014 draft picks
2014-05-10: Titans trade up to select QB Zach Mettenberger in 6th round
2014-05-10: Titans take ILB Avery Williamson in 5th round
2014-05-10: Titans select DB Marqueston Huff with second 4th round pick
2014-05-10: Titans select DL DaQuan Jones in 4th round
2014-05-09: Titans trade back, select RB Bishop Sankey in 2nd round
2014-05-09: Taylor Lewan: View from the next day
2014-05-08: Titans select OT Taylor Lewan with 11th pick
2014-05-08: Not a post, but I appeared on the Draft Mecca hangout to discuss the Titans’ first-round pick (NSFW lang, though not from me)
2014-05-08: My second-round Titans mock
2014-05-07: Breaking down the Titans’ pre-draft visits and workouts
2014-05-06: Titans draft preview by position: Defense
2014-05-05: Titans draft preview by position: Offense
2014-05-03: Filling out the pre-draft Titans roster
2014-05-02: Titans sign WR Brian Robiskie
2014-04-29: Some thoughts on the draft
2014-04-23: Tennessee Titans 2014 schedule announced
2014-04-17: How Shaun Phillips sacked the passer in 2013
2014-04-16: Analyzing Dexter McCluster, running back
2014-04-15: How the Titans were penalized in 2013
2014-04-11: Reviewing past Tennessee Titans drafts: 2008
2014-04-10: Head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s history of drafting offense
2014-04-09: Titans 2014 preseason schedule announced
2014-04-08: Notes on the Titans
2014-04-04: Titans release Chris Johnson
2014-04-03: Titans sign G/C Eric Olsen
2014-04-02: Titans re-sign G/C Chris Spencer
2014-03-31: The Titans, value, and roster construction, revisited
2014-03-28: Site news update
2014-03-28: Titans sign OLB Shaun Phillips
2014-03-27: Implying beliefs from the Titans’ free agent activity
2014-03-20: Titans re-sign WR Marc Mariani
2014-03-19: Titans release K Rob Bironas
2014-03-19: Titans release DT Antonio Johnson
2014-03-14: Titans sign RT Michael Oher, release QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
2014-03-14: Titans sign LB Wesley Woodyard
2014-03-14: Titans ink QB Charlie Whitehurst to 2-year deal
2014-03-13: Titans add DL Al Woods
2014-03-12: Titans release RT David Stewart
2014-03-11: Titans add Dexter McCluster, re-sign Leon Washington
2014-03-11: Grading the Titans’ 2013 free agent signings
2014-03-10: Assessing the free agent OT class from a Titans perspective
2014-03-07: The holes on the Titans’ depth chart heading into free agency
2014-03-07: Titans re-sign DL Ropati Pitoitua
2014-03-06: Notes on the Titans’ 2014 cap situation and possible cuts
2014-03-04: Titans re-sign S Bernard Pollard
2014-02-28: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: ST
2014-02-27: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: S
2014-02-24: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: CB
2014-02-20: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: MLB
2014-02-19: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: OLB
2014-02-18: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: DE
2014-02-17: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: DT
2014-02-13: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: C
2014-02-12: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: G
2014-02-11: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: OT
2014-02-10: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: TE
2014-02-07: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: WR
2014-02-06: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: FB
2014-02-05: Not a post, but I answered some questions about ex-Bills players for Buffalo Wins
2014-02-04: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: RB
2014-02-03: 2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positonal analysis: QB
2014-01-30: Not a post, but I answered some questions about Jim Schwartz for Buffalo Wins
2014-01-28: Tennessee Titans pick in 2014 NFL draft
2014-01-23: The 2013 Titans: Still older on offense, still young on defense
2014-01-22: Field position and the Titans defense in 2013
2014-01-21: Titans hire Ray Horton as defensive coordinator
2014-01-20: Field position and the Titans offense in 2013
2014-01-17: Titans hire Jason Michael as offensive coordinator
2014-01-17: Parsing Ken Whisenhunt’s first answers as Titans head coach
2014-01-13: Titans hire Ken Whisenhunt as new head coach
2014-01-13: 2013 Tennessee Titans Biggest Surprise: Kendall Wright
2014-01-10: 2013 Tennessee Titans Biggest Disappointment: Jake Locker
2014-01-08: Picking a Tennessee Titans rookie of the year
2014-01-06: Moving beyond Mike Munchak
2014-01-04: Titans fire Mike Munchak
2014-01-03: 2013 Tennessee Titans Defensive MVP: Jurrell Casey
2014-01-02: 2013 Tennessee Titans Offensive MVP: Kendall Wright
2014-01-01: The Jets on Locker and Ayers
Pardon the delayed nature of this post-I did the football update at the end of the calendar quarter, when I planned to do this post, then life intervened and I forgot to do this. This installment covers the books I finished in the final calendar quarter of 2013 I feel like discussing here, plus includes my 2013 favorites.
October through December was not a particularly productive reading period for me. In fact, it saw the fewest number of books I finished in a quarter since the first quarter of 2010. I managed to finish only one of the long novels I mentioned in my third quarter update, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Shamefully, I had pre-ordered the hardcover and yet never read it, with my earlier reading attempts deterred by the invented vocabulary. I finally made a considered effort to power through the learning curve necessary to get into the book. Once I did, I fell in love with it and made it through the 900 pages in a couple days. As with most particularly long novels, there’s a lot going on. A look at the intellectual acknowledgments page confirms this, with mathematical physics, quantum mechanics, and cognition among the areas noted. Not for everybody, but I loved it.
Significantly less difficult to get into was Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, though I suspect I would have gotten more out of it had I (a) read Hamlet in the past decade or (b) seen a live version in addition to reading the printed version. I still liked it, but I finished it feeling like I didn’t get as much out of it as I should have.
I kept waiting for Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth to abandon its potboiler status and become more of a serious novel of the literate popular fiction type. That did not happen. Were books like Eye of the Needle that much better, or was I simply that much less discerning of a reader? Probably mostly column B.
Lolita was my second Vladimir Nabokov novel, after Pale Fire, which I found quite funny at times but was mostly nonplussed by. My basic problems with Lolita were two-fold. First, I never once got over the squick factor. Three hundred-odd pages, every one of them giving me the squick feeling. Second, while the prose is well-crafted, prose without a storyline that engaged me leaves me as cold and dry as the Antarctic, and Lolita‘s story, such as it is, never once made me want to flip to the next page.
There is a fun conceit in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and a swift pace and moderate length carried me through the rest of the book, but it ended up feeling like empty calories with an ending that didn’t make sense once I thought about it for 30 seconds. Bonus: Due to a firm sense of time and place, there’s a reasonable or better chance it will be unreadable by 2017 at the latest.
As I look back over this list of semi-notable books, all novels, I note my non-fiction reading of the quarter was concentrated on football and sport-related subjects, all of which I covered in my football update. This quarter will be different-I’ve already finished one non-sport non-fiction book more enjoyable than any such book I read last quarter 2013, and I have others on the to-read list. I have also finished Infinite Jest and may actually begin War and Peace after the Super Bowl.
Best of 2013
Brief notes, also noted in my 2012 end of year review: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. 2013 was precisely balanced, finishing the same number of fiction and non-fiction works. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok-unlike some of Stephenson’s other works, Anathem is firmly, clearly, and obviously a work of science fiction. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for my other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Anathem is a clear choice as my favorite and the most interesting novel I read in 2013. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford came in second.
One of the reasons I unintentionally ended up procrastinating on this post is I had trouble coming up with a shortlist of great books I unhesitatingly recommend. There were plenty of works that came close, none of which exactly fit the bill for one reason or another. Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty was probably the best, but wasn’t quite as great as I thought it would be. The effect of the South Sea bubble on the characterization of English public debt in John Brewer’s Sinews of Power might have been the most amazing thing I read in 2013, but the book is not of sufficient general interest. Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines is a book I keep thinking about, always a good sign, but is better off as a complementary work. As I noted in my review, most of John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire is not strong enough conceptually for me. Objectively, perhaps Jean Edward Smith’s Grant was better than Empire of Liberty, but it never captivated me in the right way. The last two volumes of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, Day of Battle and The Guns at Last Light, were both quite good and probably belong in the top four with Smith and Wood. Tack on Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, even though it was an awful slog at times, and that’s a reasonable top five. Certainly not a bad year, reading-wise, but the peaks just didn’t hit the right levels for me.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, my favorite football reads of the year were Dan Daly’s National Forgotten League and John Sayle Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. Honorable mention to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, not football but good enough I thought of it among the best books I read this year. The worst book I finished this year was probably the sloppiest of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels, a series I finished out of sheer inertia and an ultimately futile hope they would at least achieve “late career but before he stopped actually doing the writing” Tom Clancy levels of craftsmanship. I only gave up on six books, half as many as in 2012, so I did not feel like I gave up on any particularly good books. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow if you have not already done so.
As always, de gustibus non est disputandum.
As I indicated in my most recent post on football-related books, I am still struggling to find a desire to spend the energy I previously spent on reviewing books to reviewing books. Thus, while I have continued to read books on football-related subjects, I have not had enough of an interest in any single book to give it a proper review. Thus, like the last post, this post will summarize the books I have read and not reviewed.
1. Tom Callahan’s Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas is an example of my problem with reading football books lately. It’s a perfectly fine biography of the great Colts quarterback, professionally done, and as I expressed in my review of the similar, though probably slightly better America’s Quarterback, it left me non-plussed. Read the book if you want a Unitas biography, but I have no particular recommendation (or anti-recommendation) beyond that.
2. I had higher expectations for The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. First, most of the stories in the book are familiar to college football fans, especially those who pay attention to things that happen off the field. Much of the Mike Leach content, in particular, seemed to come straight out of Swing Your Sword. Second, it is very conceptually weak. Benedict and Keteyian gives us a number of chapters on aspects of college football, but never bother to tie those chapters together (beyond those on the same subject, like the couple on Leach), and reach no conclusions about their specific problems. Take, for instance, tutoring. Two particular problems arise here. First, the issue of tutors doing work for athletes. There’s a serious line-drawing problem here that can theoretically be solved with close oversight and strict enforcement of rules. Second, the issue of sexual/romantic relationships arising between tutors and athletes, a more complicated subject than I want to try to fully address in this post but one that needs to be treated with more subtlety and sophistication than I felt Benedict and Keteyian did. On the whole, this felt like a somewhat scandal-focused newsmagazine program in book form, which did not in my view make for a satisfying reading experience.
3. I loved Three and Out, but John U. Bacon’s latest, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football I did not find as engaging. For the book, he followed the 2012 seasons of four teams-the Michigan squad he was so familiar with from his previous work, plus Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State. The Penn State information was the most interesting to me, simply because I hadn’t followed how exactly the 2012 season went down. From that, I got a lot of respect for Bill O’Brien in how he handled a pretty bad situation, including how he listened to his players. Importantly for me, Bacon recognizes the degree to which college football fandom is an affiliational exercise, an interesting conflict with Michigan AD Dave Brandon’s branding work, an exercise I was familiar with from reading MGoBlog. Ultimately, that’s the question-how much monetization can college football stand without becoming “just” cheaper, worse football? Tied up with this question is the Big Ten’s (arguably deeply self-conceited) idea of maintaining the traditional junction of top-flight education and top-flight athletics in the NCAA’s most prominent sport, an exercise they do not seem to be succeeding at right now outside of Columbus.
4. To interrupt a drumbeat of downer reviews, in comes David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by a clear margin the best sports book I’ve read this year. Epstein takes a sensitive subject, one that could easily have been handled badly, and handles it very, very, very well. He explains complicated research clearly, and as far as I can tell, is precisely as confident as he should be yet not more so. That’s something I try hard to stick to in my own personal work, and the current media environment seems to reward careering to extremes. Kudos to Epstein for a job very well done.
5. Congratulations, Gregg Easterbrook. The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America is the most exasperating football-related book I’ve read since Death to the BCS. Were I in a different mental space, I might have spent several thousand works explaining why, but I will simply note (a) Easterbook would benefit from a reading of The Sports Gene, if he has not already done so (of course, he could not have done so before writing King), (b) the Virginia Tech/Frank Beamer part of the book reminded me unpleasantly of Next Man Up, and (c) reading King should be enough to convince anybody that Easterbrook’s TMQ columns (which I stopped reading a long time ago) are sincere rather than an elaborate piece of performance art. It’s really too bad, as I believe Easterbrook raises some valid concerns for valid reasons yet wrote a book I don’t recommend to anybody.
6. I believe that head injuries are very likely the most serious issue about the future of football. I believe that the NFL’s antediluvian attitude toward head injuries is a major reason we haven’t made further progress in understanding football and concussions. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru are fine investigative reporters who’ve done their research. So why didn’t I like League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth more? A couple reasons for my nonplussage. First, as the subtitle indicates, this book is about the NFL and concussions, while I believe the NFL is actually the place where the concussion harm argument is weakest. The fewest people participate, especially for long periods of time, and they’re very well compensated (at least now). It’s in college and particularly high school where more players are putting themselves at risk, for little or no compensation, and further, the sub-concussive hits as much as the actual concussions that scare me. I can’t find the article link right now, but what really scared me for football’s future as the article on North Carolina putting accelerometers on helmets and finding terribly violent head blows in what was considered a routine practice. Second, the basics of the story were already familiar to me from this 2009 magazine piece. League of Denial supplies more detail and supplements the story with what happens since then, but the basic form of what happened was familiar to me. Third, this is in some ways a history piece. The NFL c. 2013 acknowledges concussions and cares about them a lot more than the NFL c. 2003. League of Denial is more about the NFL c. 2003, and I don’t think it advances the conversation around the NFL c. 2013 in a particularly helpful way for how best to move forward, beyond the “be cautious of the NFL, because they have a vested interest,” which I consider obvious to everyone over the age of 12 and anyone at all perspicacious enough to be interested in the issue under that mark. I should note I have not seen the associated PBS television special; it sits on my DVR and I will probably get to it eventually, but I try to leave my TV off when I’m not watching games during football season.
7. The most valuable part of Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, Nicholas Dawidoff’s book on being embedded with the New York Jets (mostly the defense) for the 2011 season is you get a taste for what you know is out there, but you too rarely hear-the unexpurgated analysis of the NFL by NFL insiders. You can tell Dawidoff is a New Yorker writer. It’s professionally done, and if he has the right word for a certain thing, he’ll use it even if it’s not a common word; for some readers, that’s a minus. For me, it’s mostly a plus-English has many words, and there’s generally one with a more precise meaning, so use it, but just don’t overdo it to show off your fancy vocabulary. Yet, I ultimately never found Collision a fascinating or otherwise compelling read. Why so, I can’t quite say, but I recall the insights and portraiture of perhaps the best book on an NFL team-season, Bringing the Heat, as being sharper and more penetrating. It’s not a bad book by any means, but I can’t recommend it with the same strength I thought I would be able to.
Combined non-football quarterly recap and best of 2013 post coming later today.