Before beginning the post proper, I feel it's important the reader understands that I am not proud of some of the things that I am going to share with you. For example: the first book I ever read in one sitting was 'Ruud Gullit: Portrait of a Genius' by Harry Harris. I've just looked it up and it is out of print (some kind of admin oversight at Harpercollins I assume) but if the mood takes you, second-hand copies are available through our website. http://b5edit.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/id/Ruud_Gullit/9780002187565
Like I said- not proud. Nor am I proud that I can remember Michael Atherton's Test batting average (37.69) but not my Grandmother's birthday. I am a little bit proud that I used to be able to recite the result and scorers in every Southampton match during the 1995-96 season, but only because I no longer can. None of these are admirable things, I know this. And part of me knew it back in 1997 when I read 'Fever Pitch' for the first time. As good as the Gullit biography was, it did not make the impression on me that Nick Hornby did. It was one of those rare and special occasions when it feels like a book has been written for you only. I've re-read it a number of times since, most recently last summer, and its magic has faded somewhat. It's a different book now, and a sadder one; just as Hornby's boyhood passion for Arsenal fades and changes, so does my passion for the book. I can't get as excited about it now, but I can't deny the importance of the effect it once had on me either.
All that is a roundabout way of saying that I like sports and so when we decided to add a sports section to the long list of splendid things on offer in Blackwell Charing Cross Road, it fell to me to do it. Not everybody liked the idea. Bookish people often are less keen on sports. If you'll allow a gross and unsubstantiated generalisation, bookish people are funny, interesting and laid back, whereas athletic types are frequently noisy, boreish, and live lives wholly without irony. (I know this because when I am watching sport I become noisy boreish and wholly unironic in disposition: I become, clinically, a moron.) But sports books are different: they are books. I don't mean the dreadful ghosted autobiographies where a footballer recounts tales of pranks and banter at the training ground, justifies years of indulgent childishness and reveals the pain he felt on being omitted from the squad for bla bla bla.
Those were not the books I had in mind when pushing for the section. I was thinking about things like 'Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino' by Paul Kimmage A haunting book about a haunted man. I don't want to give too much away, suffice it to say that there isn't a lot of banter; it's more a portrait of somebody struggling with the lies he has been told, and has told himself, for years. As the cliche goes, you don't have to be interested in football to read this book. You probably do have to be interested in football to read Jonathan Wilson's 'Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics' but if you are, I recommend you do. It is fascinating. Really. No, it is, I promise.
Then there are sports books that are barely about sport at all. H.G. Bissinger's 'Friday Night Lights' is ostensibly about one season following an American high school football team but really it's an account of the social consequences of Reagan's presidency, the '80s oil boom in Texas, contingency, hope, disappointment, and the madness of making teenagers compete in front of crowds numbering tens of thousands. Or Donald Mcrae's 'Dark Trade' which is about race, class, violence, and masculinity as much as it is about boxing. When Mike Brearley writes about being a cricket captain he is writing about a whole lot more than field placings. To read Gideon Haigh is to read a fine writer, there is no need to add the qualifier 'on cricket'.
What I'm trying to get at is that sports books are books too, and there are some which display the aesthetic verve, complexity, beauty... all the things that compel us to read, as well as any other form. So I'm delighted we now have a section showcasing some of this stuff. You should come and have a look.