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What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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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.

Football Books
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.

Fiction
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.

Non-Fiction
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 GoodbyesSkippy 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.

Written by Tom Gower

January 1, 2017 at 08:30

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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When I last did one of these posts, I had the vague ambition that I might resume doing it quarterly. Alas and alack, that was seven and a half months ago. So, a bit of a change.

This post: covers books I finished in April-September 2016, and dismisses them in as few words as I feel comfortable with. Normal caveats apply: I don’t mention everything I finished, just the ones I decided to talk about, with a focus on the interesting ones, and with only modest correction done for my tastes versus the tastes of other people.

Football Books
I was yet once again involved in writing a book and did not mention it here. Yes, I’m bad at promoting myself. I wrote the Colts and Texans chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, the annual tome previewing the season from those of us at FO. It’s mid-November and I don’t reflexively cringe when I think back to what I wrote in either chapter, so maybe it’s possible they weren’t terrible (or I was too mealy-mouthed and didn’t say anything interesting).

Jeanne Marie Laskas did some great reporting, but the book Concussion didn’t do much for me, as familiar as I already was with Bennet Omalu’s story (I haven’t seen the movie).

Alex Kirby’s Speed Kills is a very high-level overview of Chip Kelly’s offense; useful for what it is, but know what it’s not.

So You Think You Know Football? is a terrible title, but a useful book if you want to know more about NFL rules. Much better for that purpose than Mike Pereira’s After Further Review, which I reviewed over at FO thanks to a copy provided by the publisher.

I’ve stayed away from Nick Saban-related material, but I did enjoy Monte Burke’s Saban.

I finally read Sean Gilbert’s The $29 Million Tip, which would have been a much more useful thing to do when he was running against De Smith to head the NFLPA; I may discuss this book in more detail if/when I ever write that really long Roger Goodell piece I would have published last month if I wasn’t lazy (actual status: haven’t bothered to start the serious research).

Amy Trask’s You Negotiate Like a Girl should be your Christmas gift to the football-loving corporate attorney in your life; I can’t comment on how others would receive it.

Fiction
My fiction reading is mostly highly narrative fluff, often genre, and generally not worth commenting on. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be on my “worst of 2016” short list. I did start Robert Crais’ series of Elvis Cole mystery novels (and then stopped a couple books in; I’ll probably get back to those at some point) and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books (Watch good, Rincewind much rougher going).

Non-Football Non-Fiction
A lot here, some of it good.

My favorite part of Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was about the diffusion of knowledge across the Mongol Empire; more support for Ian Morris. But also see this review noting the anthropologist Weatherford puts himself on shaky historical ground at times.

Even though I don’t really know anything about basketball, I enjoyed Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection, though I should note it’s more a team-focused book than the individual player development-focused book I was expecting.

Roger Crowley’s Conquerors was an interesting look at the early days of Portugal’s overseas exploration.

As an admitted philistine, I’m still searching for a book about art I’ve actually enjoyed; Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, despite some interesting moments, did not fill that niche. People who actually like art may like it more.

Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age was very interesting on the history of Chinese firearms. A useful corrective at least on that. Maybe I’ll get enough into the 1500-1800 period to the exclusion of other things to write long pieces on the subject.

I want to nitpick anything non-legal/technical Cass Sunstein writes, so I of course wanted to do the same to The World According to Star Wars. Maybe best if you love Sunstein or haven’t read him before, and are only sort of into Star Wars. (Disclosure: In the before time, in the long long ago, I had Cass for Administrative Law.)

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri is a very interesting book on the history of homo sapiens. Very much worth a longer consideration in a different project.

I enjoyed Ben Wilson’s Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age-Minnesota’s not really a state you (or at least I) mentally think of when it comes to having a boom, but it really did go from 6,000 people in 1850 to 172,000 in 1860 (2000-10 equivalency ~75,000 to 1.7 million).

Greg Milner’s Pinpoint was an interesting look at GPS.

Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em is a very strange book; in a way, it reminds me of my version of team blogging, only actually rigorous and comprehensive, except my blogging got regular anchors to reality in the form of actual moves and games by the team. Hanson’s work does not and cannot, so he’s building up an idea of a future he recognizes is unlikely to take anything that close to the shape he envisions, while still considering his future more plausible than the alternatives. At a minimum, it’s a fascinating intellectual exercise, plus there’s always the Straussian reading.

Things to Read
The Amazon Unread list of physical books (I have a lower threshold for e-books) from 2016 includes Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot, James Gleick’s Time Travel, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana. I got almost 200 pages into Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War before the NFL season began; my reading of heavy non-fiction tends to die from September through January, so books like that, plus Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon and Ron Chernow’s Washington remain on the unread pile, as does War and Peace. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (still just $9.07 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

November 18, 2016 at 12:40

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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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.

Football Books-2015
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.

Football Books-2016
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.

Non-Football-Fiction-2015
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.

Non-Football-Fiction-2016
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?

Non-Football-Non-Fiction-2015
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).

Non-Football-Non-Fiction-2016
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 CodeArmada 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.

Written by Tom Gower

April 1, 2016 at 12:09

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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May and June are annually Football Outsiders Almanac writing season, so after April is devoted to draft preparation, I don’t tend to do much football reading in the second calendar quarter of any given year. Most years I read only one or two books about football during that span, reserving my reading time for books about other subjects. Most quarters, I write separate posts about my football and my non-football reading. For the second quarter, and especially considering it’s the evening of the 27th of July and I’m just getting around to writing a quarterly recap, I’ll be combining my normal separate quarterly recaps.

2Q 2015 was no exception to my normal football reading trends. The only football book I read was On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport. My favorite book on the draft is Pete Williams’ The DraftOn the Clock did not come anywhere close to challenging Williams’ work for that crown, even though there is room for a work to surpass it.

For various reasons, 2Q 2015 was an unproductive quarter reading-wise even on the non-football front. I only finished 15 books, my smallest total since the first quarter of 2010. Additionally, two-thirds of those were fiction, where I trend to prefer highly narrative reads. Only two of the ten novels I read are worth mentioning, and I loved neither. Dan Simmons, who has written some books I’ve greatly enjoyed (Hyperion) and some I haven’t (Drood), ran an excerpt from the novel that became The Fifth Heart on his website a few years ago, and I found it intriguing. The final book, I found those with an interest in Henry James and/or Sherlock Holmes would probably like it much better. My James reading experience was brief, abortive, and non-recent, while I’ve never been a Holmes fan. More clever than enjoyable, though if you’re a fan of James and/or Holmes, you may find it more enjoyable than I did.

The other work of fiction is Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. This is a difficult book for me to review. Stephenson is probably my favorite (living?) novelist. I have previously said that the world is comprised of two groups of people, those who have read and enjoyed Cryptonomicon and those with whom it is probably not worth having a casual conversation. I now like Anathem almost as much, and more in some ways. I’m currently (very, very slowly) re-reading his massive The Baroque Cycle. Reviewing Seveneves as a Stephenson hardcore, it’s my least favorite book of his in the past twenty years (I wasn’t a big fan of Snow Crash, which other people love, and it’s been too long since I’ve read Zodiac). Frankly, it seemed like a bit of a waste; a much less talented, less imaginative writer than Stephenson could have written a version of Seveneves that was nearly as good, which I would not have said about his other books (seriously, who else could have written Anathem and made it good? I want to read this person). That said, even inferior, not nearly as funny as normal Stephenson is still much better than standard fare SF, so I liked it even though I found it greatly disappointing. Recommended to people who have already read better books and still need more to read, perhaps?

My non-fiction reading was nearly as lame as my fiction reading. Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna is mostly about the diplomatic maneuverings leading up to the fall and the Congress. The most interesting part is the great social swirl around the Congress, something you get absolutely no sense of in the twentieth century. Were there parties at Yalta, at Potsdam, surrounding the formation of NATO, around the Rio or Kyoto Earth summits? Did the principals interact there and do any business? Was anybody sleeping with anybody else, who was also or had previously or would go on to sleep with somebody else? These people are generally absent from current histories (I haven’t read, say, MacMillan’s Paris 1919), which could be a reflection of the transition from hereditary aristocracy and monarchies to largely non-hereditary and/or democratically-elected leadership and a tendency toward shorter, more directed meetings with more frequent trips home rather than very extended, open-ended meetings where most people are around for more or less the duration. I didn’t love it enough to recommend it more generally, but I do recommend it if you have an interest in the subject. Good chapter length, too, which is often a problem in books of this sort.

I’ve loved some of Bruce Schneier’s past books. Beyond Fear and Liars and Outliers were some of my favorite reads in the years I read them. I was more skeptical about the premise of Data and Goliath. Sadly, my fears were mostly founded. The first half is a useful overview of the current age of mass surveillance; the second half is more political in nature, along the familiar lines of “what the world should be like if everybody adopted the author’s preferred policy tradeoffs.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve generally read more than enough of that kind of book. Intelligently discussing the counterarguments and overcoming them will make that kind of book worthwhile anyway, but Schneier acknowledges the counterarguments and didn’t handle them (Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat manages the former, but doesn’t succeed at the latter task, and I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it if it was longer than it was).

Stephen Weinberg is a distinguished physicist. My past fondness for Paul Johnson (haven’t read any of his books lately) indicates I have a fondness, or at least an openness toward whiggish history. But I still did not really enjoy To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, Weinberg’s almost antiseptic take on moments in scientific discovery from the Greeks through Newton, at which point modern science had been discovered and Weinberg didn’t have to make any declarations that might annoy his friends. Not awful, but not as interesting as I’d hoped.

With my work on Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 pretty much done, I’m about ready to start reading about football again. Chris Brown sent me a review copy of his new book The Art of Smart Football, Alex Kirby sent me a copy of his book Every Play Revealed 2 breaking down the Pats-Seahawks Super Bowl, I’ve begun Bart Wright’s Football Revolution, there’s a whole new crop of football books coming out soon, and, hey, I’ll get to read what everybody else said in FOA2015 as well.

You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow if you have not already done so.

Written by Tom Gower

July 27, 2015 at 22:52

What I’ve Been Reading (Football)

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In the before time, in the long long ago, I read books about football and wrote reviews of them here not long after finishing them. I still read books about football from time to time, but review them periodically. This review covers the books about football I completed in the first calendar quarter of of 2015 (and it’s only April 19, this is almost timely!).

The first quarter of 2015 was not a big football book-reading time for me, as I finished only two football-related books in the quarter. The first of those was Lew Freedman’s 73-0! Bears over Redskins: The NFL’s Greatest Massacre, on Chicago’s defeat of Washington in the 1940 NFL championship game. It was a solid read, and if you’re interested in the topic it’ll do the job. Two months after finishing it, though, little has stuck with me and I did not find it of sufficient general interest to recommend it to those without a specific interest in the 1940 championship game or the Bears.

If you read enough, and broadly enough, you’ll find a book that’s comparable even to books that are different from the norm (cf my difficulty placing Houellebecq). Unfortunately, saying I saw similarities between Ram Henry’s Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football and Mark Panek’s Gaijin Yokozuna is probably not enlightening to anyone else. Both are not quite conventional biographies, but instead combine aspects of conventional biography with a strong sense of time and place that paint a portrait of where the title subject (Steve Spurrier/Akebono, a.k.a. Chad Rowan) grew up and was shaped. If you’re looking for more of a conventional biography, the portion of the book made up of establishing this sense of time and place will probably feel excessive and maybe a bit of a waste. As was the case in Panek’s profile of Rowan’s Hawaii, I thought Henry’s profile of Spurrier’s Johnson City was very interesting and gave a better sense of who he was that a strictly conventional biography would have. I haven’t read any other biographies of Spurrier, but my sense is that there’s still room for a different in-depth biography of Spurrier that covers the time after he leaves Johnson City and before he arrives in Columbia, South Carolina in much better detail. Any comprehensive biography of Spurrier, though, would include a section on his early life that looks much like Henry’s account. Recommended to those who think it sounds interesting.

I also started buying a few books again, and on the football front acquired On the Clock by Barry Wilner and Ken Rapoport, Speed Kills: Breaking Down the Chip Kelly Offense by Alex Kirby, and Bart Wright’s Football Revolution.

Written by Tom Gower

April 19, 2015 at 23:24

Posted in Book Reviews

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 about 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 are almost never quality 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 more 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

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