Summer is for vacation, which I am about to take. And vacation is about reading a book, which I know sounds decidedly dated but I prefer the term "old school." Sorry, but the best use of beach time is not scanning the Internet on an iPhone (at least not more than a few times a day).
If you don't believe you have time for a book, here is my foolproof summer time management system. First, buy a book and keep it beside your television. Second, anytime you're watching "SportsCenter," and that inanely vapid (even by ESPN standards) "Who's Now?" tournament comes on, hit mute, read a page and go back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Besides IQ loss, you won't miss a thing. Besides, knowing the depravity of the ESPN cross promotions' department, the eventual winner of whatever that thing is supposed to be will almost assuredly be Mike & Mike.
With this foolproof plan in mind, all you have to do is choose the book. And so here is my suggestion list:
• "1941 – The Greatest Year in Sports," by Mike Vaccaro – This was simply a genius idea, a look back on an historic and thrilling year in sports – Ted Williams hits .406, Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, two big prize fights and a Triple Crown. The drama of the day was compounded by the fact that the nation and its athletes (who would go and fight) knew that the United States' entry into World War II was coming any day.
It is of little surprise the New York Post's Vaccaro, the best sports columnist in that city, delivered an exceptionally written and researched book that fascinates even the many of us born long after the year in question.
• "It's Not About the Truth," by Don Yaeger and Mike Pressler – As over the top as you already know the Duke lacrosse case is, when it all gets laid out in one place, fact after fact, page after page, it creates even greater disgust. Yaeger teamed with Pressler, the disposed Duke coach, to offer both a well-reported and behind-the-scenes look at the controversy.
Pressler's personal diary and recollection through the ordeal, most of which never hasbeen published, will bring new information even to those addicted to the case. For more casual observers, it is an easy to follow (not too detailed) narrative. After reading this you'll never look at the justice system or higher education the same way again.
• "Can I Keep My Jersey," by Paul Shirley – Shirley is the journeyman professional basketball player who enjoyed cult status for his entertaining diary entries on NBA.com and ESPN.com. He expounded on his best material in this highly entertaining book about the never-ending quest to become the 12th man on a NBA team.
The ups, downs and international antics would be enough, but Shirley possesses a one-of-a-kind perspective and an engaging writing style. The fact that Shirley doesn't seem to even like basketball or basketball players makes the voyeur factor even greater. That and the stories about life dealing with the imbeciles in foreign locales such as Kazan, Russia and the Chicago Bulls locker room.
• "The Kings of New York," by Michael Weinreb – Whether you consider chess a sport, or still call a "rook" a "castle", won't matter when you delve into the world of competitive high school chess, best played by Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School.
Weinreb is a big-time writer who practically lived with these gifted high schoolers (most of them immigrants) and discovered the kinds of humble back stories rarely told by the media. By the end he could call them "geeks, oddballs and geniuses," three reasons why the people, not the game, make this a book that will stick with you.
• "Saturday's America," by Dan Jenkins – Yes it came out in 1970 and you probably aren't going to find it at Barnes & Noble, but the Internet has used copies (current Amazon rank 1,727,793).
Still, this is the greatest college football book of all time, written, probably not coincidentally, by what I consider the greatest sports writer of all time. While the stories are all about old players and games (although there is a chapter on a "young" Joe Paterno) it is no less entertaining and serves as a sort of history lesson of the sport. The chapter on the four fans in Texas trying to attend four football games in three days remains the standard for all fan debauchery stories. I reread it every fall to get ready for the season and since two-a-days are just around the corner, why wait?
If you prefer a more modern (kind of) football book by the Jenkins family, Dan's daughter Sally, a Washington Post columnist, wrote "The Real All Americans" about the football team at the oppressive Carlisle Indian School that had to deal with all sorts of racism while becoming a powerhouse. It's an incredibly reported look at the origins of the game and specific time in our history.
• "American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks and the Legend of Iron Crotch," by Matthew Polly – This book is wholly absurd, yet apparently true, which is what makes it so enjoyable. Back in the mid-1990s Polly was a wimp from Kansas weighing just 98 pounds when inspired by Caine, his favorite character from the TV series Kung Fu, he decided to drop out of Princeton to head to China's Shaolin Temple where the ancient fighting monks lived. There, he learned about Chinese culture and eventually kick boxing.
The book is almost indescribable. It is both outlandish and hysterical mostly because of Polly's oddball descriptions, lunatic stories and fantastic comedic timing. The guy is a talent of a writer and a keen cultural observer who delivered one of the absolutely craziest coming of age stories you'll ever read.
If you don't find at least one of these more worthwhile than "Who's Now?", I give up – at least until the end of my vacation.
- Paul Shirley
- Mike Pressler