The Seven Storey Mountain. Thomas Merton, 1948.
A surprise best-seller when it was first published, this book describes a poet’s conversion to Catholicism.
I’ve come to see its success in the post-World-War II period as an encouraging contrast to the advent of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (later Scientology). Paul Thomas Anderson based his enigmatic (but brilliantly shot) film The Master (2012) in part on Hubbard’s early career as founder of a church (where he believed the big money would be generated), and that movie represents a life damaged by the psychic wounds inflicted by war in the careening “progress” of scoundrel Freddy Quell (sailor who drinks his juice straight from the torpedo, store photographer who fills his flask with darkroom chemicals, field-hand and mixocologist to the laborers, stowaway and mixocologist to The Master, etc.). Freddy comes home from the war to a psychiatric hospital like the one depicted in John Huston’s suppressed documentary Let There Be Light (included as a bonus on the Blu-Ray disc of The Master), where the treatment is superficial, scientific/chemical, and not very effective. Later, he encounters “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd, aboard a sailing ship on which he stows away. Their “processing” represents a more authentic version of the psychotherapy from the military hospital, with Freddy journeying back into his most devastating psychic wounds, of which his war experiences count only as a part. “The Master” only knows a first step, though, to put it in football terms, and can’t follow up on their initial breakthrough. Freddy remains a hot mess through the rest of the film.
I imagine wounded seekers like Freddy looking into Merton’s book, with its rich prose and brutal honesty, and finding something of lasting value. Unlike Lancaster Dodd, or L. Ron Hubbard for that matter, Merton offers his readers access to the Catholic tradition, which in its rituals, practices, and collect of learning, offers an entire playbook. Merton’s rich output, as both a writer of spiritual prose and poetry, attests to the success of his choice to answer the hard calling to life as a Trappist monk. Where is the Merton of Scientology?
Contribution to Farewell to Football? The narrative of a convert’s journey into the hard, clear truth of faith.
A Fan’s Notes. Frederick Exley, 1968.
An “fictional memoir” written from the perspective of a heavy drinker obsessed with USC and NY Giants football star Frank Gifford, this book is perhaps unintentionally harrowing. I get the impression that the writer thinks he’s a lot smarter and cooler than his actions show him to be, so the book ends up generating the perverse charm of caged rattlesnakes, maybe most particularly when Exley describes his treatment for depression with insulin shock therapy.
Contribution to Farewell to Football? An insider’s view of the disordered passions of the American fan.
America’s Game: How Pro Football Captured a Nation. Michael MacCambridge, 2005.
One of the first books I read after completing my doctorate that held up as football scholarship–this book even includes a bibliographic essay! MacCambridge generates tremendous authority with his command of voluminous sources, and he also avoids both boosterism and muckraking, telling the story of the rise of the Colossus of pro football in a fluid and accessible style. A writer of non-fiction can learn a great lesson in organization by studying how this book is put together into thematic chapters that also progress chronologically without belaboring either organizing principle (I have tried to learn that lesson).
Contribution to Farewell to Football? The inspiration to try to write something serious about football.
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. David Maraniss, 1999.
A masterpiece of biographical writing, this book emphasizes the evolution of sports media (newspapers, network TV, and NFL Films especially) in the middle of the 20th century, a key development in enabling the emergence of the mythic Lombardi. Maraniss rises well above the sportswriting he frequently relies upon as source, telling the great coach’s life story in an understated literary style that can be elegant or excitable depending upon its subject.
Contribution to Farewell to Football? Maraniss plots in detail how W. C. Heinz worked with Lombardi to produce Run to Daylight, an excellent lesson for me as I engaged in an ethnographic non-fiction writing process (the key for me was boiling down interviews to key words, which when massed together crystallized into themes, ultimately leading to the detailed outline that in the paradox of sustained creative process creates the structure necessary for free and relaxed drafting).
The King of Sports: Why Football Must Be Reformed. Gregg Easterbrook, 2014.
Widely published on sports, politics, and economics, Easterbrook (in a book originally subtitled Football’s Impact on America) explores most of the major problems associated with the culture of football in America. He heaps considerable scorn on the ownership class of the NFL, referring to their business model as feudalism, and details the extent to which they socialize risk in the funding of stadia, only to privatize profit through the sale of luxury box tickets inside those stadia.
Run to Daylight! Vince Lombardi with W. C. Heinz, 1963.
According to David Maraniss, Heinz termed this book a “progressive narrative,” a diary-like recounting of a coach’s week of planning and practice leading up to a 1962 NFL regular-season game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. Writing in Lombardi’s voice, and reflecting the coach’s intelligence and depth, Heinz peppers the scenes of film-analysis and play-selection with philosophical and psychological insights into men working together toward a goal and the solitary struggles of the leader.
Contribution to Farewell to Football? A brief soliloquy upon disordered passions: “has this become a game for madmen, and am I one of them?”
Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer. Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap, 1968.
Instant Replay was to NFL football what Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins was to the NASA moon shot: the literate and incisive recollections and reflections of a highly-talented participant in a phenomenon that gripped the attention of the American public in the late 1960’s. Kramer’s collaborator, Dick Schaap, recalls his first meeting with Kramer at Packers training camp. While his roommate, running back Jim Taylor, napped, Kramer sat on his bed, reading aloud from the poetry of Wallace Stevens. He knew then that they could probably make this book work, and when Kramer made the block on Jethro Pugh to open enough space for Bart Starr to sneak in for the winning touchdown in the famous Ice Bowl NFL title game in December of 1967, he knew they had a transcendent work.
Contribution to Farewell to Football? Kramer wrote a book called Farewell to Football the following year, to document the changes resulting from Vince Lombardi’s retirement, but that one didn’t have the same level of success. Hope that’s not an omen!
DAWGDOC’S IRAQ WAR CHRONICLES
Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog. Mike Dowling and Damien Lewis, 2011.
A very well written first-person narrative of a Marine who makes his way to the “tip of the spear” as part of the first group of American dog-handlers to deploy into combat with military working dogs (MWD) since the Vietnam War. Dowling tells the story of how he and Rex, the charismatic if high-strung [breed], adjusted to the brutal environment and persuaded a skeptical chain of command to get them into position to save lives. Dowling contributed to Farewell to Football by helping me to understand what my old Army buddy Tim Loonam did to support the dogs and their handlers in Iraq, in addition to what he wrote about “the Army veterinarian” in his book.
Contribution to Farewell to Football? Depiction of DawgDoc Tim Loonam conducting a field health check of MWD Rex.
Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital. Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft, 2007.