Reading and Thinking Football

Football, including books thereon and idiosyncratic thinking thereabout

What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)

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I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read in the fourth quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about some of the more interesting of the other books I read in that quarter, but not about the uninteresting ones or the ones I don’t feel like discussing. Since that was the final quarter of 2014, this post will also cover my favorite books of 2014.

For the third consecutive year, the fourth quarter, featuring three months of the NFL season, was the least productive quarter of the year in terms of number of books read. Of course, twenty five books, fourteen novels and eleven works of non-fiction, was still a respectable total.

I am still pretending to read War and Peace, which still consists of it sitting on my coffee table while I occasionally look at it and think about reading it, rather than actually reading it. On the fiction front, I continued to progress, in my normal Kindle fits and starts, through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and am currently part of the way through A Storm of Swords, the fourth book in the series. Reading James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet was enough to cure me of any further desire to read Ellroy; the changes made from the book to the film version of L.A. Confidential were quite judicious and made for a more satisfying experience.

Once you take out the six football reads, that leaves just five non-fiction books in three months-not many. But the minimum quality of those works was quite high. Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice was a fascinating tale of Arctic survival (or non-survival). Plus, it’s an excuse to link to this fascinating post on Robert Falcon Scott’s failed Antarctic expedition and scurvy.

Did I spend the entire time reading How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor geeking out about Star Wars? Is that really the sort of thing I want to admit? To the former, well, yeah. To the latter, well, I’ve previous acknowledged on the Internet I was four when Return of the Jedi came out, and Return of the Jedi in 1983 to me was, is, and always will be the greatest movie of all time, which would’ve probably answered the former question for you. Is it still an enjoyable book without such geeking out? Quite possibly, but all I can tell you is I found this an interesting and satisfying read on a subject I was interested in reading about.

I generally avoid reading business books unless I feel an obligation to do so; like self-help books in general, they range from immensely valuable to completely worthless, with a very large degree of YMMV and almost all for me falling in the latter category. Popular business books in particular I rarely find satisfying because many feel like a gem of an idea that could be expressed well in a medium or short essay padded into book size. Maybe it’s just because I know of the much larger lectures they were based on, but Peter Thiel’s Zero to One was a big exception to that general rule. It really felt like a condensation of much larger ideas, and a book that could’ve been five hundred large pages into of two hundred slim ones; that I would’ve preferred the larger product did not mean that I did not enjoy reading Zero to One. Instead, it means I should really go and actually read and think about those lecture notes. On Thiel’s ideas and points of view on various subjects, I’ll simply note I find him a very interesting thinker worthy of reading and considering and leave it at that in this forum.

That I have a bit of a weakness for well-done books about innovation definitely aided in my enjoyment of Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, but there was more to it than that. Johnson remains an engaging writer and effective popularizer, and this was probably my favorite of his books. Most importantly, the inventions he told were not stories that feel like they have been over-told, at least in my reading experience. Very enjoyable book. (For the curious, I have Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators on hold at the local library and should get to it at some point in the first quarter of 2015.)

That Dan Jones’ The War of the Roses was probably the weakest non-football work of non-fiction book I read in the final quarter does not mean it was a bad book. I did feel at times there was an element of that standard history critique, of “One damned thing after another,” but (a) history is made up of actual events, and (b) books that avoid that by finding the right balance between conceptualization and events are the standouts that draw superlatives, not the norm. I was looking for a solid overview of a period of history I didn’t know much about, and this book provided exactly that.

Since I keep trying to read down the stock of unread books before buying new ones, there were no major acquisitions I have no read; my only acquired books were things like Bruce Feldman’s The QB that I already read or cheap Kindle deals and library remainder sales (James Gleick’s Chaos for $1? Sure!).

Best of 2014
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. 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. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Andy Weir’s The Martian has drawn a lot of praise from other people, and I enjoyed it as well, even with some first-novel raggedness. Infinite Jest, though there were long stretches of it I did not particularly enjoy, may well end up my most lasting fiction first read from 2014. Re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem a year and change after I first read it was not the best use of my time, and it remains Not For Everyone, but I found it a more rewarding read the second time around.

Looking over the list of books I finished this year, it was like 2013 in that there was no single book that stands out as my clear-cut favorite of the year. Rather, there was a long list of books I thought were good and really enjoyed. That included Bill Byron’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Robert Coram’s Boyd, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution, Ken Dryden’s The Game, Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For?, James Gleick’s Genius, Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, plus the Thiel and Johnson books from the fourth quarter. Forced to narrow it down to two choices, I would go with the Morris and Gleick, though they did not quite stand out in the way I want books I declare to be the best of a given year to stand out. The longer list is the better one.

Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, my favorite football reads of the year included Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load … and the Load Filled Up, Dave Revsine’s The Opening Kickoff, and Bruce Feldman’s The QB. The worst book I finished might have been Daniel Flynn’s The War on Football, though it was short enough I could speed my way through it and I probably wouldn’t have finished it had been a longer book; I only finished Steve Almond’s Against Football for similar reasons. I gave up on thirteen books, including worthy titles like Robert Gates’ Duty and Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa (and some unworthy ones as well). 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.

Written by Tom Gower

January 4, 2015 at 20:37

Posted in Non-Football Books

What I’ve Been Reading (Football)

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I continue to read books about football without any particular interest in specifically reviewing them. Thus, I have continued to write quarterly recaps of what I’ve been reading instead of individual book reviews. These are the football-related books I read in the fourth quarter of 2014.

1. I was hoping Michael Weinrib’s Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games would use the fourteen weeks of a college football season to trace its history and development. That book, if done well, could be quite interesting. This is not that book. Instead, Season uses fourteen games from college football’s history to engage in what’s really free-form riffing on college football history. Using individual games to put changes over time in perspective is a reasonable idea-I thought it worked reasonably well in The Games That Changed the Game-but when you’ve read as much about college football history as I have, Weinrib’s treatment of history doesn’t teach you anything. What’s left with Seasons if the history part is all old hat is Weinrib’s emotional takes; given I generally avoid his published articles and his style is the same, or at least similar, here, I did not find that content of value either.

2. David George Surdum’s Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL during the 1950s is certainly a book that’s Not For Everybody. It’s an academic book by a university professor economist rather than a breezy history by a working journalist. Stylistically, you have to be fine with academic writing to appreciate Run. Neither of those bothers me, and I was curious in the topic. The issue with a book like this that tries to detail the inner workings is you need data from somewhere. David Harris’ The League was able to take advantage of the disclosures made particularly in the Al Davis antitrust suits, as I recall. Surdum’s data on the financials of NFL teams from the 1950s comes from congressional hearings. And, really, it was all about TV-the NFL translated extremely well to the small screen, and the increase in TV money really powered the economic rise of the NFL. One of the themes that runs through Surdum’s book is standard economic principles applied to the NFL during the period in question, including the economic rationality of Leaugethink; it came from Pareto optimality, not the willingness of big city teams like the Giants to sacrifice their own interest. The rising tide lifted all boats-New York’s rise was just relatively smaller than it was for some other teams. If you’re interested in the subject and willing to deal with this sort of book, it’s a useful read, though some of Surdum’s “NFL follows basic economic principles” points did, at least for me, fall into the “duh” category.

3. On Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, my general commentary is that books described as manifestos almost never qualify reads, and this book is no exception to that general observation. I concur with the general points, and conclusions, of this Amazon review.

4. Just from the title and the basic description, I did not expect to enjoy Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game, but I ended up liking Mark Edmundon’s book a fair amount. Edmundson uses his experience as an unaccomplished high school football player to write about sports in generally, the good and bad sides of football, and its role in relationships, including his with his father and with his son. Unlike Almond’s book, or Flynn’s War on Football from the other side, or Easterbrook’s King of Sports, Edmundson recognizes the duality of so much about life and how the same lessons work and can be used for both good and ill. Compare also John Ed Bradley’s It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, which is similar in some ways but was not as satisfying to me as Edmundson’s piece.

5. Even if I were in the habit of writing more detailed reviews of individual books, I don’t think I would have written a detailed review of Bruce Feldman’s The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks. That would not reflect whether I found the book interesting, or worthwhile; it was fascinating, and I devoured it. Rather, Feldman’s book looks at you might call the QB guru industry, and the highly technique-specific training of quarterbacks, including Trent Dilfer’s work with the Elite 11 and turning high school prospects into college quarterbacks, and George Whitfield and particularly his work with Johnny Manziel and turning college prospects into NFL quarterbacks. As an analyst, this is a long way from my forte; I’m not one to improve even moderately unschooled quarterbacks in the high school games I’ve started attending the last four years. Of course, that isn’t the book you want if you’re involved in that process; The QB is the story of how people are treating that process, not an instruction manual for the process itself, which seems to be the source of some of the negative Amazon reviews. Accepting that for what it is, it’s a highly enjoyable book, and it’s easy for me to see why Feldman apparently got interest from non-sports outlets interested in the more general story of training and development contained in The QB. One of my favorite football reads this year, and Bruce’s best book.

6. How much of what’s in Nunyo Demasio’s Parcells: A Football Life is really new? I haven’t read either of Parcell’s previous autobiographies, so I can’t say how much it adds to those, but the answer does not seem to be much, certainly in the pre-2000 period of his life. About all that might be new is confirmation the Jets would likely have drafted Peyton Manning with the first overall pick had he come out in the 1997 draft, to which a Jets fan friend replied “Well duh.” Though Parcells’ name is listed first on the page, this is a third-person biography told in Demasio’s voice rather than a first-person autobiography told by Parcells. This book got me thinking about Parcells’ lasting influence on the game; he’s rightly in the Hall of Fame for his work as a head coach, but how much was there to him other than “Yeah, he was a really effective football coach”? I struggled with that question while reading this book, and I don’t have a satisfying answer, plus this is not the sort of particularly revealing (auto-)biography that is worth reading because of the candid revelations contained with it. I didn’t dislike this book; I just didn’t get that much out of it.

Best of 2014 coming when I finish it, which should probably be later today or in the next couple days.

Written by Tom Gower

January 2, 2015 at 15:37

Posted in Book Reviews

NFL Playoff Teams to Start Three Quarterbacks

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Data dump time. In writing about the Arizona Cardinals for this week’s Sunday Night Football column, I became curious about which playoff teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have had at least three different quarterbacks start games in the regular season. So, off to P-F-R I went! A couple hundred browser tabs later, I had produced the following list, which excludes the 1987 season because of the use of replacement players, which the Cardinals will join:

  1. 1971 Vikings-Gary Cuozzo 8, Bob Lee 4, Norm Snead 2
  2. 1973 Steelers-Terry Bradshaw 9, Terry Hanratty 4, Joe Gilliam 1
  3. 1974 Steelers-Terry Bradshaw 7, Joe Gilliam 6, Terry Hanratty 1
  4. 1976 Rams-Pat Haden 7, James Harris 5, Ron Jaworski 2
  5. 1977 Vikings-Fran Tarkenton 9, Bob Lee 4, Tommy Kramer 1
  6. 1978 Broncos-Craig Morton 13, Craig Penrose 2, Norris Weese 1
  7. 1979 Bears-Mike Phipps 10, Bob Avellini 3, Vince Evans 3
  8. 1979 Rams-Pat Haden 10, Vince Ferragamo 5, Jeff Rutledge 1
  9. 1983 Dolphins-Dan Marino 9, David Woodley 5, Don Strock 2
  10. 1983 Broncos-John Elway 10, Steve DeBerg 5, Gary Kubiak 1
  11. 1984 Bears-Jim McMahon 9, Steve Fuller 4, Bob Avellini 1, Greg Landry 1, Rusty Lisch 1
  12. 1986 Bears-Mike Tomczak 7, Jim McMahon 6, Steve Fuller 2, Doug Flutie 1
  13. 1986 49ers-Joe Montana 8, Jeff Kemp 6, Mike Moroski 2
  14. 1986 Rams-Steve Bartkowski 6, Steve Dils 5, Jim Everett 5
  15. 1988 Browns-Bernie Kosar 9, Mike Pagel 4, Don Strock 2, Gary Danielson 1
  16. 1988 Seahawks-Dave Krieg 9, Kelly Stouffer 6, Jeff Kemp 1
  17. 1988 Chicago Bears-Jim McMahon 9, Mike Tomczak 5, Jim Harbaugh 2
  18. 1990 Redskins-Mark Rypien 10, Stan Humphries 5, Jeff Rutledge 1
  19. 1993 Cowboys-Troy Aikman 14, Jason Garrett 1, Bernie Kosar 1
  20. 1993 Lions-Rodney Peete 10, Erik Kramer 4, Andre Ware 2
  21. 1994 Cowboys-Troy Aikman 14, Jason Garrett 1, Rodney Peete 1
  22. 1995 Colts-Jim Harbaugh 12, Craig Erickson 3, Paul Justin 1
  23. 1997 Jaguars-Mark Brunell 14, Rob Johnson 1, Steve Matthews 1
  24. 1998 Jaguars-Mark Brunell 13, Jonathan Quinn 2, Jamie Martin 1
  25. 1998 Falcons-Chris Chandler 14, Steve DeBerg 1, Tony Graziani 1
  26. 1999 Buccaneers-Trent Dilfer 10, Shaun King 5, Eric Zeier 1
  27. 2002 Eagles-Donovan McNabb 10, A.J. Feeley 5, Koy Detmer 1
  28. 2002 Buccaneers-Brad Johnson 13, Rob Johnson 2, Shaun King 1
  29. 2003 Titans-Steve McNair 14, Neil O’Donnell 1, Billy Volek 1
  30. 2003 Broncos-Jake Plummer 11, Steve Beuerlein 2, Danny Kanell 2, Jarious Jackson 1
  31. 2005 Steelers-BenR 12, Charlie Batch 2, Tommie Maddox 2
  32. 2010 Steelers-BenR 12, Charlie Batch 2, Dennis Dixon 2
  33. 2011 Texans-Matt Schaub 10, T.J. Yates 5, Matt Leinart 1
  34. 2013 Packers-Aaron Rodgers 9, Matt Flynn 4, Scott Tolzien 2, Seneca Wallace 1

Written by Tom Gower

December 17, 2014 at 18:25

Posted in General NFL

What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)

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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.

Written by Tom Gower

October 16, 2014 at 22:56

Posted in Non-Football Books

What I’ve Been Reading (Football)

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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.

Written by Tom Gower

October 13, 2014 at 22:56

Posted in Book Reviews

My NBC Sports Archive

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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.

DECEMBER 2014
2014-12-24: NFL’s best back? It might be Le’Veon Bell [running and receiving]
2014-12-17: Will Cardinals see red with Lindley at QB?
2014-12-10: Eagles-Cowboys could come down to this [Philadelphia special teams]
2014-12-03: Patriots’ pass rush ready for much-needed boost [Chandler Jones]

NOVEMBER 2014
2014-11-26: Breaking down Broncos’ backfield jumble [Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson]
2014-11-19: Dez Bryant’s season still up to his standards
2014-11-12: Inside New England’s offensive rebound
2014-11-05: Brandon Marshall’s deep play problems

OCTOBER 2014
2014-10-29: Big dropoff coming for Big Ben [regression to the mean after big games]
2014-10-22: Why Randall Cobb is Green Bay’s best WR
2014-10-15: Peyton probably won’t bomb record TD toss [distance of TD passes]
2014-10-08: Deep thoughts: Foles throws crux of Eagles’ woes
2014-10-01: Not as easy as 1-2-3 for Patriots, Bengals [third down struggles]

SEPTEMBER 2014
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

Written by Tom Gower

September 13, 2014 at 12:52

Posted in General NFL

What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)

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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.

Written by Tom Gower

June 30, 2014 at 20:07

Posted in Non-Football Books

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