Writing about American football is considered inferior to golf and baseball literature. The late Paris Review editor and non-fiction writer George Plimpton even had a theory that the smaller the ball, the better the writing. That was curious coming from Plimpton, who himself wrote one of the best football books, "Paper Lion," about his experience trying out for quarterback during a Detroit Lions training camp.
Baseball has always attracted writers like Roger Angell and George Will who get carried away at the game's perceived symmetry and pastoral rhythms. I used to like encomiums to the game's perfect dimensions - 90 feet between the bases, matches perfectly the speed of bat and ball! - then grew tired of such stuff. Still, I love a good Red Smith baseball column, or John Updike's "Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu," about Ted Williams' last game.
Golf has inspired similar accolades, its long history studded with some of Britain and America's finest writers. Yes, Updike again. When young, I looked forward to Herbert Warren Wind's New Yorker reports on golf's majors, and his collaboration with Ben Hogan, "Five Lessons," started me playing the game. Bobby Jones was a fine writer, and I've loved the emergence in recent years of golf historians like Mark Frost. The game's literature, which encompasses reporting, fiction and poetry as well as classic instructional manuals, is rich and varied. Yet, many of the game's classics can feel stuffy and dated.
Boxing, the most brutal and elemental sport, which doesn't even have a ball, has brought forth some of the greatest writing, from William Hazlitt and others in the early 19th century to Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates.
Yet, football can claim its own heritage of great writing. Along with Plimpton's classic, which brought Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras' comic gifts to the world, I list football books among my favorites, such as Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" and John Ed Bradley's "It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium."
Now football writing has received the literary establishment's cultural stamp with the Library of America anthology "Football - Great Writing About the National Sport," edited by sports columnist and Hollywood writer John Schulian.
The book, not the first football anthology - Sports Illustrated for example put out one several years ago - but one likely to gain enduring recognition - contains excerpts from "Paper Lion," and "A Fan's Notes," along with other classics of the sport, including a piece by the New York writer Richard Price on Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant. A lot of the usual suspects appear - "Friday Night Lights," Dan Jenkins, Roy Blount Jr., Red Smith. There's even a piece by the once widely recognized sportswriter Jimmy Cannon.
I'm tempted to acquire the book, although I have a bit of an adversion to the Library of America. I've bought a number of its collections of American writers, yet when reading them have the sensation of entombed work, dead as butterflies pinned to boards. The football anthology looks like an entertaining selection of the sport's literature. Still, such a work takes a bit of the life away from the writing and the game.