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Gateway books: Sport

11th February 2013 - Tom Clayton


It's our firm belief that any topic can be fascinating in the hands of the right guide. Who would have thought that so many people would be interested in the problems of navigating at sea in the 18th century until Dava Sobel's Longitude became a bestseller? Or miniature Japanese wood carvings until Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes?

Many people who never dream of buying a book about sport, but as Tom Clayton from our St Pancras International branch reveals, the finest sportswriters make for absorbing reading even for those who can't tell real tennis from Real Madrid.



If you vowed, on 1st January, to read something new... nice one! But where to start? If, like me, you enjoy heading off the beaten track (or, in our case, well-worn carpet) of bookshops, into new sections, armed with little more than a dog-eared book token and a hopeful heart, then this blog is for you. It's designed as a beginner's guide to genres that you may have not considered reading before. What's more, it will point you in the direction of some of the best writing available. So don your hunting helmet and take up your (metaphorical) machete, say goodbye to your loved ones, and prepare to meet unimaginable peril as we delve, trembling with anticipation, into a new world.


Sport writing is a particularly thorny corner of the forest; (t)read carefully, there are poisonous weeds here. One slip could send you tumbling towards the cash desk with some dreadful ghostwritten cash-in.


Here are five of the most inspirational and engrossing books in the genre. They are in no particular order, apart from a truly exceptional first one.


Beyond a BoundaryBeyond a Boundary by C L R James

This book deserves all the praise it receives, and more. Far more than a book about cricket, this remarkable memoir incorporates boyhood recollections, the colonial history of the West Indies, philosophy and activism in a way never seen before or since. I came away from Beyond a Boundary feeling like I knew more about cricket, and more about the world, and I will always be grateful to it. His regret about not writing more in his life, quoting Wordsworth - 'Late and soon, the world is too much with us' - is surely the lament of every sportsman.


The FightThe Fight by Norman Mailer

This extraordinary account of 1975's 'Rumble in the Jungle' between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa marked a new high point for sports journalism. You can practically feel the heat coming off the pages as Mailer is drawn deeper into the strange and intense aura created by Ali in his prime. In contrast, Foreman is calm: 'His violence was in the halo of his serenity,' notes Mailer. The final stages of this book, in the hours leading up to and including the fight, are as daring, apocalyptic and exhilarating as writing gets.


Inverting the PyramidInverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

Wilson's history of tactics is really the history of football, and how well he tells it. From the very beginnings of tactical awareness in the 1870s, to detailed discussions of the flourishing of various styles in Brazil, Russia, Italy and England, the range of research in Inverting the Pyramid is frankly staggering. Wilson is an adept and engaging writer, and this is the definitive guide to the technical side of the beautiful game.


SeabiscuitSeabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

Hillenbrand's evocative portrayal of Depression-era America provides the backdrop for what is perhaps the greatest story of the greatest champion in horse racing, Seabiscuit's victory in the 1938 Triple Crown. The race was followed by an estimated 40 million people, making it among the biggest sports events ever seen at the time. Seabiscuit is charming, beautifully written and accessible for the novice (as I most certainly am).

Racing Through the DarkRacing Through the Dark by David Millar

A cautionary tale from a cyclist who rose, fell, and rose again. In 2004 Millar confessed to doping and was banned for two years. This unusually candid memoir charts the time immediately before his arrest, his trial, and his subsequent return to cycling (completed this year when he rode for Team GB in the Olympic road race). Racing through the Dark is combative and wounded, uncompromising and regretful, and overall a thoroughly decent advert for fairness in sport.


And five more:




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