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9 sports books to read while you’re in social isolation

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You’ve probably got the time — so learn something! (Or just read a good story.)

“Games Without Frontiers” book cover via Penguin Books

There is truly no time like the present to slip into a good book. And with most sports suspended, sports books can serve as both a blissful offline distraction and a way to fill that sports-less void.

This is just a small, small sampling of the available offerings, selected by SB Nation staffers. Most of them are available as ebooks, and all are easily accessible via your online book retailer of choice. (Buy independent if you can!)

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003) by Michael Lewis

It turns out that the revolution Moneyball inspired across sports was not exactly a universal positive. But at the time, before the pitfalls became apparent, it felt like the dawn of a new, more thoughtful way of appreciating sports. More than anything else, Moneyball is what got me writing about baseball.

— Graham MacAree

Beartown (2016) by Fredrik Backman

My current frontrunner for favorite novel is one I think all hockey fans should read. Backman’s Beartown was originally published in Swedish in 2016 and was translated to English in 2017. In it, a small forest town in Sweden is preparing for its junior ice hockey team to compete in the national semifinals when an act of violence changes everything.

Backman uses hockey as a lens to look at violence, class and identity, and how they affect an entire community. He doesn’t shy away from the realities of how sports mirror the worst— and the best — parts of society, which means that this story can be graphic. Yet it still feels like something that could happen anywhere.

This is an especially good quarantine read because Backman also published a sequel titled Us Against You in 2017, and HBO Europe is currently producing a TV series based on the novel.

— Sydney Kuntz

Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) by Eduardo Galeano

One of the best, and one of the strangest. Eduardo Galeano’s wider reputation as a writer means this is one of the few soccer books admitted into the category of literature, but don’t let that put you off. Galeano loved football the way everybody does, but he wrote about it like nobody else: the assembled mini-chapters are lyrical and melancholic, weird and funny, passionate and wise. A full review of the book can be read here.

— Andi Thomas

The Breaks of the Game (1981) by David Halberstam

Halberstam’s classic deep dive inside the NBA at the dawn of the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era through the eyes of the Portland Trail Blazers is the NBA book by which all others are measured. Halberstam talks to everyone — players, coaches, executives, television network presidents and commissioners — delivering an incomparable level of access and reportage.

What emerges is a poignant and intimate look at the people struggling to keep the sport relevant at the exact moment the NBA is posed to take flight into the ‘80s. Through Halberstam’s narrative, the Blazers feel like a family, albeit a dysfunctional family teetering on the edge following the painful breakup with Bill Walton. I’ve read it dozens of times and find something new in its pages with each reading.

— Paul Flannery

The Ball is Round (2006) by David Goldblatt

You could probably eat up an entire quarantine with just this book alone, and you wouldn’t feel like you’d wasted your time. Taking as his premise the question, “Is there any cultural practice more global than football?”, Goldblatt assembles a world-spanning, thousand-page history of soccer as it shapes and is shaped by society, money, politics and power.

— Andi Thomas

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (1999) by Joe McGinniss

At the other end of the scale, this is a story of one season spent with a tiny club in Italy. McGinniss pulls off the fish-out-of-water American act brilliantly, and by the time the season approaches its conclusion, you’ll be in love with almost everybody in here. Which is why the ending will smash your heart into a million tiny pieces.

— Andi Thomas

Playing the Enemy (2008) by John Carlin

Enemy is about how Nelson Mandela used rugby to unify South Africa after his release. There’s always a lot of cheap talk about how sports can bring us together, but Mandela and that moment in time were proof it’s possible with the right leaders.

— John Ness

The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS (2004) by Keith Dunnavant

This is one of my absolute favorite sports books. It’s pretty hard to make the backroom mechanizations of college administrators sound like a riveting drama, but Keith Dunnavant does a great job making it not only accessible, but really interesting. No other book explains the real force behind college football as we know it today like this one, and it’s written in a way that you can knock it out in two days. Anybody who wants to peek under the hood and understand why bowl games, conference realignment and the NCAA itself work the way they do should read this book.

— Matt Brown

Games without Frontiers (2016) by Joe Kennedy

Half-travelogue, half-theoretical critique, this is a slim, rich, occasionally knotty, and often very funny book that investigates the development of football alongside modernity and capitalism. A lot of books that aim to “explain” sport intellectually end up sounding rather patronizing to their subject. Here, by contrast, Kennedy aims to find how “football and theory work on each other.” It’s great, and there’s nothing else quite like it.

— Andi Thomas