What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)
Hey, I’m actually doing a quarterly installment at the end of the quarter, even if it doesn’t go up until the morning after. Thanks, Buckeyes!
For those unfamiliar with this thing, I read books. Some of them are about football. Most of them are not. I then occasionally mention what I thought about some of them, but don’t mention others. I try to mention the interesting ones, or the ones about which I have something I want to say. My tastes are not those of other people; what I write in these posts is what I thought about the books, not necessarily an attempt to put them in a broader context or to say what I think other people might think about them.
Since this post covers the books I finished in the fourth quarter of 2016, I will also include my customary list of the favorite books I finished in the calendar year.
I kind of liked Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up, but Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player’s Descent into the Brutality of Fantasy Football didn’t do a single thing for me. I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been able to breeze through it quickly. The Rookie Handbook: How to Survive the First Season in the NFL by Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross, and Geoff Hangartner did little more for me; I didn’t disenjoy it, but rather just didn’t get anything out of it.
The early Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided some great natural material for The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History, which Jason Vuic plumbed reasonably enough.
I’m not sure how much was new in Lars Anderson’s The Mannings: The Fall and Rise of a Football Family, whether in general or to me specifically, but I still enjoyed my time with the book. If you’re not familiar with Archie’s story (the book covers him and each of the three sons, but Archie is more the primary focus), then I recommend the SEC Stories documentary.
I’d write my own review of S.C. Gwynne’s Hal Mumme biography The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, but why should I when I can just point you to Chris Brown’s comments instead? I second Chris’s note that it seemed like Gwynne downplayed how Mumme’s Kentucky tenure went sour and add the post-Kentucky portion of his career is barely covered, and second Chris’s comment about football going in different directions, though there’s no doubt the Air Raid’s influence has helped change the college game in particular.
Mostly genre. I did mostly enjoy Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, though to my way of thinking it’s more a novella than a proper novel (his longer Arthur & George sits unread near me as I write this). I also enjoyed Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (beginning with Imperium) enough to finish all three books. I also finally read Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which, uh, okay, sure, whatever, maybe it would’ve been great for many 7-year-olds, but I’m kind of beyond that.
Mini-theme of space, or at least it felt like that when reading overlapping parts of Rowland White’s Into the Black about the first Space Shuttle mission and This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age by William E. Burrows. I found both interesting enough if you have an interest in the topic, and there really wasn’t that much overlap. If I was reading the two sequentially, I’d read the Burrows first and skim even more than I did the passages in White about rocketry and general space program background.
A brief taxonomy of political books by quality ordering:
Level 0: Treats all conclusions as self-evidently and obviously correct, without recognizing the existence of possible counter-arguments.
Level 1: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, but does not engage with them.
Level 2: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, engages with them, does not make a good case for somebody who does not already agree should agree.
Level 3: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, engages with them, successfully makes a good case for why somebody who does not already agree should agree.
Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction is at Level 0 and is therefore strongly anti-recommended. Pity, because (1) there was no need for this to be a political book at all, and (2) even if O’Neil was determined to make this a political book, it could have been much better. Very disappointing.
Tim Harford may be my favorite pop economist writer, and I greatly enjoy his More or Less podcast, but Messy didn’t stand out in the genre the way his other books have.
Collections of essays on different, even if related subjects are almost definitionally hit-or-miss, and the same is true of Stephen Wolfram’s The Idea Makers. The people covered are all interesting enough and mostly, though not all familiar names even with a general knowledge of math and/or computing history, but they range from historical profiles where Wolfram does detective work (just how important was Ada Byron Lovelace, really, and what did she do?) to personal reminisces. Perhaps not valuable without an interest in the general topic, but Wolfram (with whom I was just extremely generally familiar) is a useful enough guide.
Taxonomically, I would classify Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive as a self-help book, the personal utility of which is highly unpredictable and extremely variable. Most books I would classify as self-help I find worthless, but some are quite useful. Some of those books I found worthless others found extremely valuable, while they found the books that I enjoyed worthless. I mention it here solely because it was not as obvious as normal that it is what I would classify as a self-help book.
My 2016 Favorites
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. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.
New for this year: I’ve decided to classify this as a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. This is a change in description rather than a change in classification or methodology. Like past lists, this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2016.
Fiction was mostly genre not worth recommending more broadly. In a previous recap, I noted 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, describing them as 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. Not “literary fiction,” and perhaps not even Tom Wolfe-esque “literate popular fiction,” but maybe a slight step down from there.
Non-fiction… in that same recap post where I noted Winslow’s novels, I mentioned Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, a 2014 book that said much more about the strange happenings of 2016 than anything else I read (favorite “2016 was weird” tidbit: people who had a favorable and unfavorable view of capitalism both broke roughly 50-50 on the Brexit vote). The most distinctive book I read in 2016, always a useful marker, was Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em. I will also single out Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, my favorite football books included the aforementioned The Perfect Pass, Monte Burke’s Saban, and Amy Trask’s You Negotiate Like a Girl. My favorite sports title was Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection.
My least favorite non-fiction book I finished in 2016 was O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. My least favorite fiction book I finished in 2016 was the nonsensical Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I gave up on nine books in 2016, including three novels by Paul Murray (An Evening of Long Goodbyes, Skippy Dies, and The Mark and the Void) because I thought I saw enough there he might write a book I really, really like one day.
Things to Read
This is a more interesting section when the previous installment came more than six weeks ago. The Amazon Unread list of physical books (I have a lower threshold for e-books) from 2016 still includes Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot, James Gleick’s Time Travel, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana, and only those three titles. I did in fact over my Christmas travels begin Ron Chernow’s Washington, but just barely so. War and Peace remains on the unread pile, something I’m pretending will change in 2017, a mere decade after its purchase.
As always, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (up 53 cents to $9.60 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.