Not only am I a fan of the franchise, but I also consider the 1985 Chicago Bears the greatest single-season football squad to ever hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy, so I could see how one could chalk up my judgment that Rich Cohen’s Monsters is one of the finest books on the sport that I’ve ever read to bias. Yet the fact remains that Cohen’s other great books — which have looked at Jewish gangsters, banana barons, Chess Records, and packaged sugar substitutes, while also offering up either small autobiographical bits of Cohen’s life or massive chunks that borderline on memoir — are also favorites of mine.
While he’s never been shy about telling his or his family’s story in his work, Monsters takes on another personal subject in Cohen’s beloved Chicago Bears — not only that one magical season that culminated with the team destroying the New England Patriots at Super Bowl XX, but also the team’s history, and the way the Bears’ founder George Halas basically invented the modern game. It’s all wrapped up in Cohen’s trademark storytelling style, making football interesting for people who couldn’t care less for the sport.
Having a vested interest in professional sports, actively picking a team to root for, going to a bar to cheer on and scream at them after every winning play and heartbreaking loss — these things aren’t for everybody. But if you have an open mind, and since we’re in that sweet spot when the World Series is taking place, the NFL is in the middle of its season, NHL play is underway, and the NBA is starting up, there are more than a few books like Monsters that will entertain and educate true fans, as well as people who wouldn’t know LeBron James if he walked past them dribbling two basketballs.
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, Shehan Karunatilaka
I haven’t read many other books about the sport, but Karunatilaka’s novel about a drunk sportswriter trying to find the elusive Tamil cricket player will probably remain the finest book that has to do with cricket–fiction or otherwise — that I’ve ever encountered.
Paper Lion, George Plimpton
These days we usually talk about George Plimpton as the founder of one of our favorite literary magazines. This book, based on an idea he originally explored in 1960’s Out of My League, finds the author suiting up for the Detroit Lions (who just so happen to be in the same division as the Chicago Bears of Cohen’s Monsters) to see what it’s like for a guy who has no business playing with the professionals to attempt what they do on a regular basis. The results are extraordinary.
On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates
It doesn’t make the most sense: a sport where two people stand in a ring and repeatedly punch each other has allured some top writers into pen pieces on the sport. Even though there are probably 863 other books by Oates you plan to get through at some point, you should consider moving this collection of her works on boxing to the top.
Blood Horses, John Jeremiah Sullivan
While Pulphead is an absolutely essential collection of essays, Sullivan’s first book, Blood Horses, begins with his father’s own association with horse racing as a sportswriter and expands into something even bigger.
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, H. G. Bissinger
It seems strange that there are people who will yell “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” in professional meetings, but who haven’t read Bissinger’s book from which the show about football (that even non-football fans love) was adapted.
The Game, Ken Dryden
For some reason or another, hockey hasn’t really translated to great literature as often as other sports have. This book by legendary goaltender Ken Dryden is one of the few exceptions.
Heaven is a Playground, Rick Tealander
If you’ve ever even spent just a few minutes watching a serious game of basketball being played on a street court in New York City, you know that their games can be at least as intense as the ones played by guys who get paid the big bucks. Rick Tealander’s Heaven Is a Playground was originally supposed to be a magazine piece compiling his observations from a Brooklyn court, but it ended up expanding into a full book that expands the definition of sports writing.
The Devil and Sonny Liston, Nick Tosches
Read this not only because you can never get enough of Tosches’ writing, but also because the life and death of the former World Heavyweight Champion makes for riveting reading.
The Last Boy, Jane Leavy
You know how people like to toss around the term “Dickensian” when describing a book? Well, it truly does apply to Jane Leavy’s biography on one of baseball’s greatest players, Mickey Mantle.