In our house, the Thanksgiving table has barely been cleared before Christmas prep begins in earnest. My wife, in fact, is one of those people who shops for Christmas presents year-round, and sometimes plans her gift-buying more than a year in advance. I love her, but on some level, this machine-like efficiency and precision around the holidays is scary. I tend to ignore my present buying until the week before Christmas, then spend the final few days in a sweat-soaked panic, driving frantically around the city, wondering whether or not a pink Snuggie from CVS is really an appropriate gift for my father-in-law.
In the end, I often settle on books as gifts. At least to me, the feeling of giving someone a good book -- a book they end up actually enjoying -- is perhaps the most rewarding sensation you can get as a gift giver. And while I may not be particularly organized, I am remarkably picky about books, particularly sports books.
Sports books can be tricky because many of them -- including a few of the most popular ones -- are not particularly well written. Michael Lewis and John Feinstein are great, but they're easy picks. You're not going to get the feeling of discovering something by picking up Moneyball, The Blind Side, Season on the Brink or A Good Walk Spoiled. If you want to dig a little deeper, here are five that are I'd recommend to anyone who appreciates the intellectual side of sports. All of them on my shelves, and depending on the tastes of the recipient, they'll be a lot more rewarding than handing someone a Snuggie.
This is technically a book about a man who spent a year on the road with his wife following the NASCAR circuit as it crisscrossed the country, but it's really an essay about America. It's the most beautiful, most descriptive, most lyrical book ever written about motor sports, and it captures the South -- and the culture surrounding NASCAR -- in a way that's honest but also respectful. It's not necessarily a book for gear heads. But it's a book for anyone who is even remotely interested in the complicated and fascinating tapestry that makes up this country.
Long before point guard Stephon Marbury became something of a self parody, he was a high school phenom at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, dreaming of balling his way out of the projects. But in addition to Marbury, this book is about three of his high school teammates, who Frey followed for a year. This is a book about basketball, sure, but it's also a critique of public education, the portrait of a broken community, and as raw an honest as anything you'll ever read about the Catch-22 of dreaming about the NBA. It's essentially the Friday Night Lights of basketball, with themes of athletic glory, disappointment, poverty and broken dreams woven together beautifully by an author who understands the power of understated prose.
A lot of Ravens fans have read John Feinstein's Next Man Up for an insider account of a year inside an NFL team, and it certainly has its strengths. But with respect to Feinstein, this is a superior look at life inside an NFL locker room. Bowden, who has written classics non-fiction books like Killing Pablo and Black Hawk Down, spent a year with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1992 and perhaps better than any writer, he captures the beautiful madness that is the everyday life of an NFL player. Yes, it's about an Eagles squad that suited up 18 years ago, but it could easily be about any team with colorful personalities and grand expectations. If you want to understand locker room politics, you can't do much better than this book.
The problem with sports autobiographies is two fold: First, they rarely contain good writing, because athletes are rarely great writers. Second, athletes by nature aren't typically big picture people. They have to life in the moment to be successful. And after spending an entire career being cautious about what they say in public, it's difficult for them to be forthright. This book succeeds because of Agassi's remarkable candor, and because it was ghostwritten by Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who wrote one of the best memoirs, The Tender Bar, to come out in years. Agassi read the Tender Bar, and was so blown away, he asked Moehringer if he could help him with his own book, and Moehringer essentially lived with Agassi for several months to make it happen. The collaboration produced one of the best sports memoirs ever written.
This book is a memoir by Sports Illustrated's most underrated -- and I would argue, currently its best -- senior writer. But more than that, it's ruminative look at what it means to be a writer, and the challenges of shaping stories that put sports in a larger context. Price talked Sports Illustrated into letting him move to France for a year, where he wrote eloquent, thoughtful pieces about a variety of subjects, including what Zinedene Zindane's popularity said about the changing culture of France, what a cricket match between India and Pakistan might mean in terms of diplomacy, and how Lance Armstrong came to symbolize how much of Europe viewed America. I often say to friends and family, if you've ever been curious about why I decided to write about sports for a living, this book explains it better than I ever could. Some of the best parts aren't about sports at all, however. They're about marriage and fatherhood and the juggling act we all perform as we try to balance family life with professional aspirations.