When I was a kid, four, maybe five, my dad took me to see a baseball game. He bought me a Marlins hat and a big, chewy soft pretzel, and sat me down to teach me about the great American pastime. As the story goes, it was about 15 minutes after the National Anthem ended that I asked, “Papa, can I read now?”
Thus begins and ends my relationship with sports. To this day, I understand sports about as much as sexist people assume women do, and I would still much rather read a book than watch LeBron James dunk a basketball or … I can’t even think of a football player’s name to finish this analogy.
Despite my general ambivalence, some of my favorite books are books about sports. So with Super Bowl Sunday nearly upon us, I rounded up 10 of my favorite books about sports. They’re great enough to enjoy whether you’re reading them during the big game or just after.
1. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
There’s a pretty mediocre Drew Barrymore rom-com based on this book, but pass on that and go for the novel by Hornby. This is his first book and details his formative relationship with football, or, as you probably call it, soccer. Fever Pitch was made a Penguin Modern Classic in 2012, and for good reason: It’s a stunning account of how something so simple as a spring game of soccer can transform into something deeply prolific.
2. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This novel is so good that I spent the month after I finished it being convinced that I’m actually very interested in baseball; in reality, Harbach just tricked me into thinking that I am. This is — and, yeah, I’ll admit this on the Internet, whatever — the only book that has ever made me cry. It chronicles four years in the life of Henry Skrimshander, a baseball prodigy who finds himself in over his head at Westish College. Harbach writes of baseball in a way so stunning that I found myself envious of people who connect to sports: “You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
3. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
At first you’re all “Why would I ever read a book called Shoeless Joe???,” then you learn that this was the book that inspiredField of Dreams and you immediately have it shipped overnight. If you haven’t seen Field of Dreams, well, first of all, do that right now — but, for the time being, allow me to clue you in on the plot: Ray Kinsella is a farmer living in Iowa with his wife Annie and their daughter Karin. He hears voices one night telling him to build a baseball field in the middle of his corn crop, and he does so, because … whatever. The field attracts the ghosts of baseball legends, and also J. D. Salinger. Yes, Salinger himself makes an appearance in Kinsella’s novel, and it is equal parts insane and wonderful. Shoeless Joe was written during Kinsella’s time at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and it may be the loveliest account of schizophrenia out there.