I began my life, as many obsessive readers do, much more interested in books than sports. It wasn’t until I entered university that I joined a sports team with, perhaps unsurprisingly, my choice of sport (fencing) heavily influenced by my love of swashbuckling fantasy novels. Since then, however, sports have become a more dominant part of my life and I’ve dabbled in quite a few.
With the Banff Mountain Film Festival currently on in Wellington, I thought now might be a good time to bring two loves — that of reading and that of sport — together by talking about a few of my favourite books on (or incorporating) the subject of athletic pursuits.
by Bill Bryson
One of the first books I read that is, ostensibly, about an athletic activity, A Walk in the Woods isn’t a great recommendation of tramping/hiking. But Bryson’s hilarious recounting of the sometimes breathtaking, often miserable experience of walking the Appalachian trail end-to-end (in sections) hasn’t put me off getting into the woods myself.
by Andy Kirkpatrick
Written by one of the premier big wall climbers in the world, Psychovertical recounts Kirkpatrick’s first solo attempt at climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan, when his experience with big wall climbing was much less extensive. Kirkpatrick’s book is by turns exciting, extremely funny and touching in its attempts to explain what drives mountaineers and climbers to take on the risks involved in their sports.
Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer
I knew very little about Mt. Everest when I began reading Into Thin Air. I knew a bit about Mallory and Hillary and the risk of death on the climb, but Krakauer’s book made clear in a completely new way the horrors one’s body and mind can undergo when subjected to oxygen deprivation at altitude. The struggles, and in some cases the deaths, of the climbers in this book gripped me in a way few fiction novels have.
by Haruki Murakami
A slim little volume, Murakami’s running memoir should resonate with anyone who has experienced both relaxed joy and intense discomfort during runs. While I couldn’t relate to Murakami’s tales of marathon-distance races (I’m more the 10 km on a really good day type of runner), I did relate strongly to the emotions he described around the experience of running.
Running with the Kenyans
by Adharanand Finn
As a contributor to Runner’s World magazine, Finn travels to Kenya to train with the country’s established and aspiring runners in order to learn what has made Kenyan runners so successful in international competitions. My favourite thing about this book wasn’t any great revelation of running secrets, but, rather, the depictions of each of the athletes — their character as individuals and as persons singularly focused on their goals.
If you’re looking for fiction that incorporates sport, here are my top three recommendations:
Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
A great representation of a female teenage athlete in a family focused on American football.
For Realist Fiction:
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
While some other writers, like John Irving, have woven components of sport throughout their books (baseball and wrestling in Irving’s case), Harbach’s novel demonstrates how sport can truly consume a life.
For Genre Fiction:
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
As a former fencer, I find Kushner’s depiction of swordplay (of the light-bladed, dueling variety rather than the greatsword-wielding, armoured knight variety) to be the best I have ever encountered.