It’s a cliché to say the best sports books aren’t really about sports. It also implies that sports are inherently meaningless — that “good” sports books use games and teams and players as an elaborate conceit through which to talk about something important.
Many of the books on this list do deal with heavy, important topics: depression, World War II, genetics, etc.
But they also have something to say about sports. In Simon Kuper’s book about Jews in Holland, you’ll learn something new about the nature of the club system in European soccer. In David Epstein’s book about genetics, you’ll learn why you can never get better at running.
Here are the five best sports books I read in 2013.
Kuper’s book looks at the way Holland, with its large Jewish population, responded to German occupation during World War II. It tears down some myths around the country’s resistance (or lack thereof) to the Nazis through the lens of AFC Ajax, the soccer club supported by many of Amsterdam’s Jews.
This memoir by beloved Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is superficially about his strict running routine (he runs six miles every day). But the book quickly digresses, and by the end you realise it’s less about running and more about the way running serves as a guiding principle of Murakami’s ultra-structured, terrifyingly monotonous life.
An American moves to Juárez and embeds himself with Los Indios as they futilely try to avoid relegation from the Mexican top division. It’s an subtly ambitious book that touches on everything: US-Mexico border tensions, small-time Mexican soccer, class strife, sports business, the mythmaking of violence, and regional identity.
There might be more amazing facts per page in this book than anything else published this year. Readheads have a higher tolerance for pain than other hair’d people. Nearly all professional baseball players have better than 20/20 vision. Only a specific tribe within Kenya is actually good at distance running. 17% of seven-foot-tall American men between the ages of 20 and 40 play in the NBA. It’s awesome.
The best book I’ve ever read about what it’s like to be a professional athlete. Reng’s biography tracks Enke — a German national team goalie who killed himself in 2009 after years of depression — from his time as a youth prodigy to the time he holed himself up in a Turkish hotel, too anxiety-stricken to go to the stadium and play a match.
It’s a devastating look what happens when mental illness is forced to be hidden, with intimate, nearly day-to-day details about Enke’s battle.
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