What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)
Once upon a time, I read books and wrote reviews of them. Book review posts were staples in the Before I Only Wrote About Football blogging days, and were my most regular non-link posts in the early days of this site. Earlier this decade, I wrote reviews-many short, plenty longer-of every book I finished for a blog that nobody else can read. Yet, for one reason or another, I eventually stopped doing that. I switched from full reviews of each football book to capsule reviews in a quarterly post. I started out writing the quarterly post at the end of the quarter. Then a couple weeks after the end of the quarter. By now, it’s been nine months since I posted here about anything I read (and it’s been several years since I’ve written a book review for The Locked Site).
I know I’m quite likely never going to go back to writing about football books the way, but I do want to try to return to the quarterly recaps. After so much time, though, I just want to get everything up to date. Thankfully, I didn’t read that much the past nine months by my standards. In my last book review post, I mentioned the second quarter of 2015 was my least productive reading quarter (in terms of numbers of books finished) since the first quarter of 2010. Third quarter 2015 was my least productive third quarter since 2009 and fourth quarter 2015 was my least productive fourth quarter since 2009 (I note by quarters because my reading has tended to follow seasonal patterns; since I started keeping track by month in 2004, I finish on average 20% more books in July and August than you’d expect, while I finish 26% fewer in June). For the year, I finished 79 books, my lowest total since 2009, and the 9 football books I finished was the lowest total there since 2006. (By comparison, I averaged 117 books per year in 2011-14, so 79 books was for me a 33% drop.) We’ll see what the rest of 2016 brings. In 2010, I finished more books in April than I did in the entire first quarter, but I surely won’t replicate that this year.
Anyway, time for the nominal purpose of this post, telling you what I did actually read. Football first, then non-football, my 2015 favorites, and a look at the unread list.
Once again, I was involved in writing a book but failed to talk about it here. Yes, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the annual tome previewing the NFL and college football seasons from us at Football Outsiders came out. I wrote the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Tennessee Titans chapters. One day I should really talk about my FOA writing process and give a behind-the-scenes look at what I wrote about, why I wrote about what I did, how I wrote the chapters, and some stuff like that. Today will not be that day.
I mentioned in that previous book review post Chris Brown sent me a review copy of his second book, The Art of Smart Football. It’s Chris’s work, so of course you should read it. Like his first book The Essential Smart Football, it’s a collection of essays, most previously published. For me, it wasn’t as essential as Essential, because more of it was familiar to me. Some of the Grantland (R.I.P.) pieces also missed the graphics a digital product can have that a physical book cannot.
When the NFL made all-22 accessible to the public in 2011, one lament/request I heard from fellow outsider fans with an analytical bent was they really didn’t know what they were looking at, and it would be great to have somebody knowledgeable explain to them what was really going on. Alex Kirby’s Every Play Revealed 2 gives you that kind of guide for the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. It’s probably best read in conjunction with a re-watch of the game itself. I ended up not having the time to do that, alas, and just read the review PDF Alex sent me. He’s done similar books for other games, and they’re probably worth picking up if you really want to study that game. Now if we can just get a consortium of people to do it for every other NFL game…
Thursday evening, I was listening to Bruce Feldman (mostly) talk with Kevin Sumlin about RPOs and the one-back clinic, so it’s fitting that tonight I finally get to writing about Bart Wright’s Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How It Transformed College Football, a history of the spread offense that includes the influence of Dennis Erickson and said one-back clinic. Not a coaching book, but a lot of good interview work and a book I wished I’d read soon after it came out (in the fall of 2013). Recommended.
I wanted more than I got from Brady vs. Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL by Gary Myers.
I was a big fan of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out, and though about Michigan thought that book could be read quite profitably by people with no connection to the Wolverines or Ann Arbor. Endzone, I thought, was a book that appeals much more to the UM devotee and wasn’t as broadly interesting.
Writing a biography about a living subject who doesn’t cooperate with you is an interesting task. The living subject means that there are contemporaries around, many of whom are probably willing to speak, plus contemporaneous records are generally extant and not too difficult to locate. But you’re still in some ways missing the most important voice. Keith Dunnavant’s Montana is fine for all that, though I’m reminded of my comment on his Bart Starr biography, America’s Quarterback, that was kind of the inflection point for when I got bored with football books.
I wasn’t as big a fan as everybody else seems to be of Adam Lazarus’s Best of Rivals on the Joe Montana-Steve Young quarterback battle when I read that a few years ago. I was a much bigger fan of his Hail to the Redskins on Joe Gibbs’ great Washington teams, plus there’s a great Gibbs quote I want to use in a longer piece I’m still in the planning stages on. Recommended.
NFL Confidential: True Confessions from the Gutter of Football by Shmavid Shmolk, er, “Johnny Anonymous” was a suitably breezy and entertaining book by a player about a team-season, in the instant case David Molk on the Eagles’ 2014. The veneer of anonymity is paper-thin; the travails of the third-string center who ends up playing probably would’ve been enough to identify Molk with even minor work, a Monday off day is a give-away for Chip Kelly and the Eagles, and picking out Jason Peters and DeSean Jackson, among others, was pretty easy. Ball Four it ain’t, but it’s in line with Slow Getting Up as far as recent NFL player memoirs go. The better question is what would a book like Ball Four look like these days? I don’t know, really, but has anybody attempted to write a book like Dryden’s The Game since that came out 35 years ago? That’s a niche I’d like to see filled.
As long as you’re not expecting a full biography or anything more than a quick airplane read (which I mention because this was, in fact, where I read it), Bill Polian’s The Game Plan delivers what you might want. But while I bet he could’ve, Polian wasn’t interested in writing a great book on the NFL.
I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale out of sheer cussedness to see if I would enjoy it any more, if it made any more sense, if it was any better. Nope, and a couple pages at the very end of academic satire were not enough to carry the rest of the work for me. Very strongly anti-recommended to people who share my tastes (see infra).
Jo Walton’s The Just City was an interesting novel about an attempt to set up Plato’s city in the “real” world with people from various stages of history. I forgot if it was in this book or the sequel The Philosopher Kings that Walton had a character note they didn’t get many people from the Enlightenment or later (beyond the POV female character from Victorian England), (a) for which I credit Walton and (b) #TeamEnlightenment. Being science fiction, this is of course a trilogy, and I plan to get the third volume from the library when it comes out as well.
A friend of mine recommended Sean McMullen’s trilogy beginning with Souls in the Great Machine after I asked for books like Anathem in my last book review post. There’s an interesting premise here, which carries the first book, and an interesting change of scenery does the sequel The Miocene Arrow well, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the concluding volume Eyes of the Calculor (a 2016 finish, but it’s not worth breaking up the review for that). Recommended for genre fans.
I did read non-spec fic fiction in the final two quarters of 2015, but not much of it and nothing to recommend.
I was hoping I’d finish Michel Houellebecq’s Submission before the year ended so I could just declare it my favorite fiction read of 2015. But I didn’t, and if it had really deserved its place there, I probably would have. I didn’t enjoy it was much as I did The Map and the Territory.
I suspect I would have enjoyed Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard more as a dramatic performance than as a book.
Some actual non-genre novels I liked Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and its sequel, The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars from the mid-1970’s onward with a DEA agent protagonist. James Ellroy-esque in how characters overwhelmingly range from shades of gray to black, but much more narrative and much more readable, and epic in scope.
But if you want genre fiction, I did enjoy Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. Five books, concluded satisfactorily with the just-released The Spider’s War. And am I the only one who sees the outlines of an alt-universe Anakin Skywalker in Geder?
Based on the reaction of my then-6-year-old niece, the start of Chapter 12 of Ian Toll’s Six Frigates on the early U.S. Navy is one of the funniest things ever put to print. She seemed particularly amused by Toll’s use of the word “private,” describing a letter sent by President James Madison. More … mature readers will find it a well-done history of the time period, capably conveying both the on-land and at-sea machinations, something not often done in naval histories.
I was unsurprised to see Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future make many best of 2015 lists. I’m personally hesitant to put biographies of people who seem like they’re still in the prime of their careers there, simply because I want to be sure the best books of a year to still be really good five years later. But anybody who writes a Musk biography in 2020 or 2050 will have to engage in some way with Vance’s work.
Economist books: I enjoyed both Alvin Roth’s Who Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Design, focusing on his work on auction designs, and Richard Thaler’s more specifically a memoir Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. Greg Ip’s Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe I didn’t love as much as others seemed to (I seem to recall seeing it on more than its share of best of 2015 books), but it’s still solid.
Phillip T. Hoffamn’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World? was a book I’d been waiting on for a while, since discovering Hoffman’s work into seventeenth century France years ago. It was good, but wasn’t as much of an addition to the literature as I hoped it would be. I’m not quite sure I’d go as far as R.Albin’s review, but nor would I say he’s wrong.
I read and enjoyed but didn’t love David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing about a decade ago, but had put off reading his Paul Revere’s Ride for some time for no very good reason. Like Crossing, it does a fine job of putting the epochal historical event sometimes shrouded in myth and mystery into time-specific context. It shouldn’t be your first book on the American Revolution, but it can profitably be read with just a basic knowledge of the American Revolution and probably can profitably be read by those with a great interest in popular histories of the American Revolution.
The Russians are coming: Bill Browder’s Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice was a nice mix of personal memoir of doing business in Eastern Europe and Russia in the collapse of Soviet hegemony and then in Putin’s Russia, where the life of enemies is cheap. David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal has its own Moscow betrayal and killing but it set a quarter-century or so earlier, as Adolf Tolkachev spies for the U.S. and then is betrayed and executed.
The problem with a book like North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissentors and Defectors is it’s difficult to judge just how good a job Daniel Tudor and James Pearson did of giving us a glimpse into the normally-forbidden and highly-restricted Hermit Kingdom. The available evidence seems to be as good a job as one can. If you can trust it, it’s quite an interesting look at a very different world. If you can’t, then, of course, it’s worthless.
I didn’t enjoy Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything as much as I did his The Rational Optimist; the two books aren’t the same, but I recall a broad thematic similarity and Optimist seems like a better sell. David Starkey’s Magna Carta was a thin book, but did a good job of putting the 1215 document in more context. After Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses, I didn’t get as much out of Michael Jones’ Bosworth 1485: The Battle That Transformed England, and probably wouldn’t have finished it had it been longer. As a fan of the novels of Frederick Forsyth, I enjoyed his memoir The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue; his take on Biafra remains quite interesting, though I lack any context for it (or any detail of the conflict in general).
I’ve only finished 7 non-fiction books this year, and 4 of those were about football. Fortunately, two of those other three are worth discussing.
I’ve previously noted I greatly enjoyed Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic and his earlier What If?, where he answers absurd hypothetical questions seriously. His latest book is Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, where he explains (with the aid of illustrations) complicated things using just the one thousand most common words. It’s a clever concept, I believe first expressed in his Up Goer Five comic. In book format, though, my overwhelming impression was that it’s just a clever concept and fine details are normally expressed in specific technical jargon because that’s the best, clearest, and most economical way of doing so.
The nature of my project here precludes me from going into too much detail on Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. But this 2014 work is a superb analysis of the basic fault lines in American (and other) society, as demonstrated in the current Presidential election campaign and many other things. Not exactly a casual read, but worth working through and considering. Quite likely to end up on my best of 2016 list, and would have topped the best of 2015 list (infra). For a glimpse of Gurri’s thought and analysis, see this recent post of his on D***** T****.
Best of 2015
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. Little stands out among my 2015 fiction reads. The most memorable for me was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I repeat my earlier warnings, that this is the most Not For Everybody, Your Mileage May Vary thing I’ve ever mentioned on here and if you start it, and you’re not enjoying it by chapter 8-10, give up. The Walton books were interesting, but I’ll wait to judge those until the final volume comes out. Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was interesting, but (a) it’s the first volume in a trilogy, (b) I didn’t make any headway into the sequel when I checked it out from the library, and (c) series in progress (at least the English translation thereof). I wish I had non-genre recommendations, but I don’t.
For the third straight year, picking my favorite non-fiction read is quite a challenge, and this feels like an even bigger challenge than it was the past two years. Looking over the list, the standouts in my memory include James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle (though I am somewhat loath to recommend this more broadly), Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, plus the aforementioned Paul Revere’s Ride and Six Frigates. But I’d put all of them a notch below my 2014 favorites.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, my favorite football reads of the year were Wright’s aforementioned Football Revolution and, idiosyncratic in some sense it may be, Ran Henry’s Spurrier. I finished entirely too many books I disenjoyed in 2015, including The Handmaid’s Tale and Ernest Cline’s Armada, which I finished out of curiosity to see if it really was that awful. It was (following my Dan Brown parallel, if Ready Player One was his DaVinci Code, Armada is more like his Inferno). I gave up on at least eight books in 2015, including both The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Things to Read
Over the next month, I’ll be spending a great deal of time preparing for the 2016 NFL draft. I’ve already acquired Optimum Scouting’s draft guide and Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft 2016 Preview, plus depending on when I get this post up may have already received my pre-ordered copy of Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Dane Brugler‘s forthcoming draft guide is also on the must-buy list, and of course I’ll be supplementing all of those with Lance Zierlein’s draft profiles for NFL.com. Anything else I end up getting, I’ll note on Twitter, and if you want to send me your draft guide, just hit me up.
My book buying tends to go in spurts. Lately, I’ve neglected that I’ve been in a long-lived reading rut, and my acquisitions in the past nine months that I have not yet read include, among others, Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, Monte Burke’s Saban, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life, and Ben Austro’s So You Think You Know Football?, titles like Alex Kirby’s Speed Kills, Peter H. Wilson’s The Thirty Years War, and many more sit waiting to be read while forthcoming books like the conclusion to Walton’s trilogy and James Gleick’s Time Travel (due out in September and pre-ordered) await in the distance.
As always, War and Peace sits on my end table waiting for me to finally get around to reading it, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow ($9.07 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.