As much as we know you’d like to spend every waking minute following plays and tallying points and yelling at the referee, there’s always some dead point during the weekend when there’s no sport on TV and the weather’s too poor to risk a kick-about outside – at which point, what better substitute activity than to read a rollicking novel about sport, eh? So, for every armchair fan and every player consigned to the bench, here’s ten diverse titles to get you started.
If you’re an athlete, you need to read Ann Patchett’s Run, a novel that traces the intertwined fortunes of two Boston families following a car accident. It’s great on race relations and social inclusion and politics, and the heartbreak of parenting, but it’s also a tribute to the beauty and grace of long-distance running. Gorgeous.
If cricket’s your game, have a look at Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: it stars a Dutchman living in NYC just post 9/11 who joins in a cricket team playing at the Staten Island Cricket Club and thereby connects with a whole swathe of other outsiders, including one Trinidadian entrepreneur, Chuck Ramkissoon, who meets a very sticky end.
For the snooker players, there’s Lionel Shriver’s Sliding Doors-esque behemoth, The Post-Birthday World. Irina, a children’s book illustrator, has to make a call: to stick with her long-term partner Lawrence, or to leave him for snooker pro, Ramsey. The book plays out both scenarios in alternating chapters, and while it’s a great ‘what if’ read, it’s also a really good sales pitch for snooker – despite the soppy cover.
So you like baseball? Then check out Don DeLillo’s immense and glorious Underworld: it’s got the FBI and the mafia and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but most importantly, it’s got the Giants and the Dodgers and Branca pitching to Thompson on October 3rd, 1951. Unbeatable.
If you’re a basketball fan, you might like Mike Lupica’s Miracle on 49th Street – it’s nominally a Young Adult title but that doesn’t matter; it’s a gripping story about families and their contradictions. Twelve- year-old Molly’s mother has died and she’s tracked down her father, who turns out to be basketball superstar Josh Cameron of the Boston Celtics. Will Josh make room in his life for his game and his daughter? You’ll have to read it to find out…
You say you’re more of a swimmer? Then have a look at Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda, which follows the declining fortunes of a teenage swimming star: it’s a blockbuster drama with some of the best descriptions, not only of the physicality of swimming itself but also of the brutality of the competition scene, that we’ve yet to read.
For soccer fans, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch; an autobiographical account of one fan’s misery as he watched his team, London’s Arsenal, plough every furrow of football failure from the sixties through to the eighties. It’s funny and informative and you don’t even have to like the Gunners to get a kick out of it.
If you’re into horse racing, but you’ve exhausted the Jilly Cooper archives, then hunt out Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, a vast and intricately plotted exploration of the world of stud farm and trainers and millionaire owners: it’s got jockeys and gamblers and a horse whisperer, and, of course, the horses themselves: a Dickens-like equine soap-opera!
If sailing floats your boat (see what we did there?) then you’ve got a lot of choice, from CS Forester’s Hornblower series and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey books, to Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom, but we’d still plump for Melville’s Moby Dick: it might be long, but it’s surprisingly hilarious and, ignoring all the completely counterfactual ‘facts’ about whaling, it’s really fascinating account of life (and madness) at sea.
Last, but not least, for the tennis-players, you’ve got to try David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Where else would you get AA meetings and dystopia and killer videotapes all circling around a tennis academy for talented kids? The book’s not exactly easy but it’s brilliant nonetheless and packed with tennis facts – DFW played on the Tour as a young man so there’s method to the mania.
Got any more tips for us and for each other? We sports fans-slash-readers always want more!