Each of these books will draw you into a world much larger than that of a single game. You might even finish one feeling like a fan yourself.
The Art of Fielding About mums described as overripe blueberries, pretty girls named after ancient cities, a college president with a Melville-inspired tattoo, a shy, quiet boy who could, an underdog Midwestern team that did, and oh yes, also baseball. You can thank us later.
Freedarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide To Pro Basketball History Bethlehem Shoals and Jacob Weinstein ran the most beautiful basketball blog -- maybe the most beautiful sports blog - for years. This contains their stunningly illustrated meditations on the wit, style and personality of basketball. You’ll fall in love even if you can’t tell Jordan from Johnson.
Striker and Stopper Moti Nandy wrote short, melodramatic, relentlessly readable stories about struggling Bengali footballers in the 1970s. These two delightful novellas, translated by Arunava Sinha, are a ticket into the dream-world of hardscrabble, hopeful old Calcutta.
Koni Moti Nandy is the only author to make this list twice, because his young-adult book about Koni Paul, a girl who has to beat all the odds to achieve glory as a swimmer, is just that adorable. Translated by Sumana Mukherjee.
Bonus: If you like Koni, you’ll also want Nandy’s Kalabati The Showstopper, about a fiery teenaged cricketer, translated by Arunava Sinha.
Nation At Play Think of Ronojoy Sen’s 2015 book as a history of modern India, told through its misadventures in cricket, hockey, boxing, track, and other sports. Read if you like juicy social history about India’s fragile modernity.
Night Games: A Journey To The Dark Side Of Sport A rape case in Melbourne implicates an Australian rules football player. Anna Krien follows the trial, and gets closer to the heart of darkness concealed in so many men’s teams - why do they engender sexual violence? Brilliant journalism about a touchy topic that puts many people off pro sport.
King Of The World David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali is just one of a library of great books about the twentieth century’s most beautiful man. Non-geeks will appreciate the depth of historical engagement, its evocation of American turbulence in the 1950s and 60s and its low-key velvety style.
Open Agassi's fast-paced, snacky biography. Swap this with your dirty romance novel habit. Perfect book to take to the beach.
Bonus: Andrea Pirlo’s I Think Therefore I Play, co-written with Alessandro Alciato, has the coolest, funniest voice we’ve ever read in a football biography.
Soccer In Sun And Shadow Eduardo Galeano’s classic volume of brief essays on the beauty and heartbreak of football is drenched in haunting mid-century Latin American poeticism. Politically progressive, unashamedly utopian and as sharp as it is sentimental.
The Art Of Captaincy Former England captain Mike Brearley, trained psychoanalyst and the only Test player in history to have been selected (largely) on the strength of his leadership skills, writes a quiet book full of insight into making a team, and making it play. Good headshrink.
A Season With Verona Life in a historic Italian town is complicated by its loser football team and bitter, bloodied fans. A richly literary look at the Italian underbelly by Tim Parks, who usually writes about DH Lawrence, European literature, and railways.
Bonus: The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. American political journalist Joe McGinniss spends a season with a tiny southern Italian team having a legendary season.
Beyond A Boundary Cricket nerds will insist that this is the best sports book ever written, but don’t let that deter you: it’s probably one of the most important books of the last century altogether. The Marxist philosopher CLR James decodes masculinity, race and nationhood in this stately, thoughtful meditation about playing and watching cricket in Trinidad.
Bonus: Corner Of A Foreign Field, Ram Guha’s famous cricket history is a wise, meticulous book about how India and cricket came to make each other. Read it even before you read India After Gandhi.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Less surreal than Murakami's novels, but just as pretty and packed with his pointed little emotional insights.
The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner Alan Silitoe’s sports fiction captures the hardness of post-war English life in narrow, unpleasant but highly readable ways. A classic in the vein of Don’t Look Back In Anger and other hard-bitten British boy staples. If you like it, treat yourself to his other novel about football called The Match.
The John Carlos Story An autobiography no home should be without, built around Carlos’ part in one one of the most dramatic moments in sporting history at the podium during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where he and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the American national anthem. A shiver-inducing evocation of the racial hatred and civil rights heroism of 1960s America, and what Cornel West calls the “majestic spirit” of a brave Harlem boy.
Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi William Fotheringham’s intoxicating biography of Italy’s most beloved sportsman, the 1950s cyclist Fausto Coppi, a controversial genius with a scandalous love life, who died young in mysterious circumstances. Why couldn’t Vittorio de Sica have made a movie about this called The Bicycle Chief?
Summerland A children’s novel by Michael Chabon in which Norse mythology entwines with a fantasy about saving the world through baseball. The first third might contain some of the best writing Chabon has ever done.
Bonus: Read Bernard Malamud’s The Natural for a dark adult daydream about talent and corruption in the world of baseball.
Into Thin Air Almost as good as Jon Krakauer's other novel Into The Wild (not a sports book, but please read), this is a non-fiction, first-hand account of a ill-fated group of climbers trying to scale Mt. Everest. Warning: Some passages are vivid enough to give you frostbite.
Inverting The Pyramid A history of football tactics might seem too nerdy for even a casual fan, let alone a non-fan. But the near-geometric beauty of Jonathan Wilson’s cult book is an inverse way to interest you in football and the evolution of its movement. Think of it as reading a history of ballet, but with hairier legs.
Keeper A journalist gets an interview with the World Cup winning goalkeeper El Gato, who tells him an unforgettable story about how football found him. Wonderful young adult novel by Mal Peet.
Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong Think of this as a crime caper in which a hero, the Irish journalist David Walsh, is the only person who knows - and becomes hell-bent on proving - that a great golden hero is not everything he seems. The “seven sins” of the title refer to the seven Tour de France titles of which Armstrong was stripped after admitting to doping through his career.
Bonus: Armstrong’s 2000 memoir It’s Not About The Bike, about his recovery from cancer and return to cycling, is the literary equivalent of a shot of adrenaline, even though much of it is now retrospectively shadowed by his doping.
Pundits From Pakistan Read every single thing Rahul Bhattacharya, author of The Sly Company Of People Who Care, has written: he illuminates lonely men and uncertain nations with the sheer beauty of his style. Pundits From Pakistan, his first book, is an account of India’s 2004 cricket tour of Pakistan, but is also about these two countries and their people living the same lives every day on either side of an insurmountable political barrier.
H Is For Hawk It counts if it’s #1 in Amazon’s “Hunting” list, right? Follow a sport for years and you’ll know that it’s really just a way to reckon with loss in the long term. Something like that happens when the falconer Helen MacDonald brings home Mabel, her young goshawk, and finds a way to bear the burden of grief for her father.
Game Face: What Does A Female Athlete Look Like? Jane Gottesman’s project collecting photographs of women playing sport highlights charm, character and distinction in the act of playing while female. Photos include those of Serena Williams and anonymous shot-putters; photographers include Annie Liebovitz and Ansel Adams. Can we have an Indian version, please?
Seabiscuit: An American Legend Laura Hillenbrand’s famous book about a famous horse evokes a dazzling, vanished 1940s America in only slightly over-perfumed language. If you’d watch the movie, you’d definitely do better reading the book.
Under The Frog It’s impossible to think about Tibor Fischer’s award-winning comedy about playing basketball in communist Hungary without dissolving into instant fits of laughter. A book about coming of age under authoritarianism and getting used to the gallows humour of failure, sporting and otherwise.
Little Girls In Pretty Boxes Joan Ryan’s fantastic investigation into the industry of young female gymnasts produced by ruthless overtraining and undernourishment is a trailblazer. It’s essentially non-fictional horror; a great comment on gender and age imbalances encouraged by our appetite for beautiful spectacle.
Chess Story Stefan Zweig’s classic novella of Nazi persecution and insanity features a man whose personality collapses under the weight of his obsession with chess; a master of the game must face off against him in uncertain circumstances. (NB: Even if you know nothing about chess, listen to this Radiolab episode about rules and what they do to our ability to play, before you read Zweig.)
Chinaman Wait! The provocative title is (or used to be) the name for a type of left-arm spin bowling. This is actually Shehan Karunatilaka’s fantastic novel about a boozy old cricket journalist chasing the legend of a mysterious Tamil bowler who only played four Tests for Sri Lanka. Bleak, clever, wickedly funny.
Fever Pitch Nick Hornby’s tragic-comic memoir of being an Arsenal fan is a modern classic, and is on our list even though no one at bpb really adores it. It’s slighter than many other books on this list, but reading it might put you in a good mood, and clue you in to the madness of the sports fans in your life.
The Sweet Science + Levels Of The Game We're clubbing AJ Liebling’s boxing book and John McPhee’s tennis book, meant for aficionados but beloved classics of the New Yorker school of writing that will please any lover of literary style.
The Compleat Angler Izaak Walton’s bestseller from 1653 has been read by generations of men as not only a guide to fishing (helpfully structured as a conversation between an angler, a falconer and a hunter) but a gentle argument for a life of art and recreation itself. Also: “Nay, the Trout is not lost; for pray take notice, no man can lose what he never had.”
Between Clay And Dust Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s elegant, tragic novel about an ageing courtesan and a wrestler navigating the foreign country of the present is full of the atmosphere of the age of pahalwans: their strict rules, their spiritual devotion to the practice of wrestling, and their old-fashioned ideas of duty and courtesy.
The Golf Omnibus We thought long and hard about whether to switch out PG Wodehouse’s obviously superior golf stories for the scraps of his writing on cricket (many of which you can read in a collection called Wodehouse At The Wicket). The golf stories include some of Wodehouse’s funniest writing. But also read Mike and Psmith from his cricket writing, which will lead you to the later Psmith novels, the most wonderful books Plum (and possibly anyone) ever wrote.
The Unfortunates Highbrow post-modernism you can’t download. BS Johnson’s 1969 novel is a box of short chapters that you can pull out and read in any order. It’s about death and the uncertainty of memory (hence the format), but its action takes place at a football match in an unnamed English city, where a journalist is covering a game.
On Boxing Read Joyce Carol Oates’ reflections on “the sweet science” before Mailer, Liebling or anyone else - for the simple pleasure of a literary writer revealing the depths of her interest in, and thoughtfulness about prize-fighting.
See bpb's daily book recommendations at bpbspine.
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