Sunday, December 23, 2012
Books on the Top Shelf
So, I've spent the last day or two reorganizing books in my office. It's a long and boring story so, of course, I'm going to share it here. We have two rooms in our house that were, at least theoretically, built as home offices. The first -- where I'm working right now -- is on the third floor (they have few basements in the South, so attics/third floors are essentially high basements). There's a ton of room up here, it's fairly private and I have books and posters and junk everywhere up here. It's the ideal place for an office.
There is another option, though. It's on our second level, and it's kind of a walk-in closet. It's tiny; barely big enough for a desk and chair. You have to walk through the bathroom to get to it. It offers no privacy at all. I'm not even sure why anyone would have ever considered it a potential office space -- it kind of looks like a room the builder put in to cover up an error in the blueprint. ("Uh, we've got this tiny room left over." "Oh, fine, call it an office.") But the people who lived here before us put in a few built-in shelves and one day on a lark we bought a cheap desk at Ikea, It took me only six or seven days to build it, and we set it up as an office.
I never expected to set up in that room. Then I found that I preferred writing in there.
It was strange. Bill James' theory is that sometimes as writers we need to be in confined spaces where no distractions can pull us out of that writing dream world. Maybe that's it. It also could be that when I woke up in the morning, I was too lazy to walk up the steps to the big office -- easier just to go to the room right next to the bathroom. Whatever, I started writing in that small office, and I liked it a lot, even though every so often I would be interrupted by a toilet flushing or a request to put a doll's hair back on its head (don't ask) or simply one of the kids just wandering in and scaring the Ikea out of me by blurting, "Soooooooooooooo, whatcha doing?"*
*I should add that moving up to the higher office does not necessarily prevent these interruptions. Elizabeth, the 11-year-old, just walked in to ask me a question about Tony Hawk (she's reading Nick Hornby's "Slam").
During my stay in the little office, I occasionally would come up and visit my main office. I would try to figure out what was wrong with it. This is exactly the office I have dreamed of having. Lots of space. Great wooden desk. Bookshelves everywhere, a thousand books, cool sports photographs, a snowglobe of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, a Micro League baseball game, the sign from the Superman arcade video game we used to own*, a photograph of Muhammad Ali punching the Beatles and another of Bobby Orr flying, a print of a Ted Williams painting, a Drew Carey bobblehead doll, just a lot of cool stuff.
*Speaking of which … Mike Schur and I recorded a new Poscast, which you can download here or at iTunes here.
But I kept going back to work in the little office. I wasn't even tempted to come back and work here. Was it really because I needed a confined place? Maybe. Was it because I actually liked being interrupted by a toilet flushing? Then, one day, something hit me. I know this will make me sound insane … but one of the reasons I really did not like working up here was because the books were so wildly out of order.
Yes, I know, that makes me a bit of a crackpot. I accept that. Still, it subconsciously drove me nuts. When we moved to Charlotte, for time's sake, I simply unpacked my books and put them on the shelves in whatever order I happened to grab them. I figured at some point I would put them in some kind of order, but it didn't seem that important to me. If I needed a book I would simply look and look and look until I found it.
After a while, though, I started to dislike being around those books. They were all over the place. Classics were next to junky books that people had sent me or gifted me through the years (I remember that "Catch-22" was next to one of those "Sports Facts You Will Find Fascinating In Your Bathroom" kind of books that tend to misspell the names of rather significant sports figures like Lou Gerhig). Outdated books I should have thrown out or sold to used book stores were everywhere. Great literature was stuck between hockey books. Mediocre books had places of prominence, while remarkable books were stuck on the bottom shelf where I would never find them. The thing was a disaster, and I didn't really have the time or momentum to fix it. But I also didn't want to work in that office and be reminded of it.
It wasn't something I thought about. I just didn't like being around those books, didn't like looking over there and seeing that mess. And so, for a year or so, I avoided the whole thing. Then, this week, for various reasons, I returned to this office. At the same time, I have started rearranging the books. I'm not nearly done, but at least the books are in something resembling order -- fiction and nonfiction mostly separated, funny writers in one place (Dave Barry, Calvin Trillin, Bill Bryson, Woody Allen, Ian Frazier, etc.) favorite novelists in another (Phillip Roth,* E.L. Doctorow, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Don DeLillo, Fitzgerald, Paul Auster, Alice McDermott, Jonathan Lethem, Hemingway). I now have a book case dedicated to my exhaustive collections of sportswriter collections. I do wonder if, when it's done, I will have the world's largest compendium of sportswriter collections. And what that will mean.
*Man oh man, do I own a lot of Phillip Roth books. I don't even remember buying half of them … I think they reproduce while I'm sleeping.
And here's one thing I did: I reserved a top shelf for really excellent sports books. I figure this shelf -- like my Golden 100 idea -- can be a living museum of terrific sports books that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I'm not saying they're the BEST sports book I own. There are numerous great books missing. I'm just saying they're really good sports books, books that I came across in this process and thought: "Hey, I really liked that book, that goes up on the shelf." I plan to add and subtract from it often.
With Christmas just a day or two away, I know it's too late to do much with this information even if you wanted to use it. But since people are always asking me to recommend great sports books … I thought I'd write down what's on the shelf right now.
* * *
9 Innings, by Daniel Okrent. A single game between the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers from 1982, broken down bit by bit. So much fun.
Ball Four (Plus Ball Five), by Jim Bouton. The classic ballplayer tale.
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn. A father, a son and the Dodgers.
The First Fall Classic, by Mike Vaccaro. He's one of my best friends, but I say without bias that this is just a terrific book about baseball in its raw early days.
Game Time: A Baseball Companion, by Roger Angell. Baseball's Steinbeck.
Guide to Baseball Managers, by Bill James. My favorite baseball book by the most influential baseball writer since Henry Chadwick.
How Life Imitates the World Series, by Tom Boswell. With one of my favorite ever baseball essays: "The Best Manager There Is," about Earl Weaver.
Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher with Ed Linn. Sort of the black sheep cousin of "Veeck as in Wreck."
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, by Richard Ben Cramer. It wasn't always pretty with Joe D., especially after he retired, but the baseball scenes in here are as joyous as any you will read anywhere.
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. Like you needed me to recommend it.
Veeck as in Wreck, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn. Classic baseball storytelling from one of the game's great showman.
* * *
About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, by Roy Blount Jr. Hilarious book about the 1970s Steelers.
America's Game, by Michael MacCambridge. The definitive story of how football became the most popular sport in America.
Breaker Boys, by Dave Fleming. Dave is another friend, but this is just great writing about the early days of pro football.
Johnny U, by Tom Callahan. It's not just about Johnny Unitas or even those Baltimore Colts. It's about a time.
One More July, by George Plimpton with Bill Curry. The Lombardi chapter is as good as sportswriting can be.
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss. The best sports biography ever written.
* * *
The Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam. Master storyteller on Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers.
The City Game, by Pete Axthelm. Basketball in New York -- from playground legends like the Goat and Helicopter to Clyde and the Pearl.
Heaven is a Playground, by Rick Telander. And even deeper dive into the basketball playgrounds.
Pistol, by Mark Kriegel. Pistol Pete Maravich and why he mattered.
* * *
Arnie and Jack, by Ian O'Connor. Palmer and Nicklaus and a rivalry that is much deeper and more subtle than you might remember.
The Greatest Game Ever Played, by Mark Frost. I loved this book, built around the legendary U.S. Open at Brookline in 1913.
Hogan, by Curt Sampson. A penetrating look at one of the most fascinating and mysterious stars of the 20th century, the man who said he knew the secret of the golf swing.
* * *
The Boys of Winter, by Wayne Coffey. Wonderful retelling of the Miracle on Ice.
* * *
Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby. The classic book about being a fan. I'm only including non-fiction here, so I'm leaving out the incredible "A Fan's Notes," by Frederick Exley, since it's subtitled "A fictional memoir." I might do a fiction shelf later.
How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer. Fabulous and sometimes frightening tour around the globe using the world's most popular sport.
Once in a Lifetime, by Gavin Newsham. I had no expectations whatsoever when I picked up this book about the New York Cosmos (I think I picked it up at an airport overseas for a long flight home). But I absolutely loved it.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano. An almost mystical book about a sport and country.
* * *
Big Bill Tilden, by Frank Deford. A sometimes forgotten classic, this is one of the greatest-ever sportswriters on one of the most dominant -- and one of the strangest -- athletes in the history of American sports.
Bobby Fischer Goes to War, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. About Fischer, the Soviet chess machine, and an amazing clash.
One Day in September, by Simon Reeve. Utterly gripping. It's based largely on the documentary by the same name about the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but there's much more here about the response to the massacre, which was called "The Wrath of God."
The Perfect Mile, by Neil Bascomb. The manhunt for the four-minute mile.
Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. Of course.