Every reader should have one book that holds sway above all others, that they would grab in a house fire.
Sports Illustrated‘s 2002 grand compilation, “The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time,” contains many classics of a mostly American sports book genre.
While I have read quite a few books on this list, none has influenced my writing and perspective on sports more than No. 88.
“The Joy of Sports: Endzones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit,” by Catholic theologian and philosopher Michael Novak ought to be much higher on the list.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s near the top. “The Joy of Sports” was published in 1976 and revised in 1993, and it inspired me to launch Sports Biblio.
SI writes that Novak “muses on the religious underpinnings of sports, praising the ‘holy trinity’ of baseball, football and basketball over ‘the illusory, misleading, false world’ of work, politics and history.'”
But this book is about so much more.
When I bought “The Joy of Sports” in the mid-1990s, from a now-shuttered bookstore — long live Oxford Books! — I was a proudly secular liberal journalist who liked to sleep in on Sundays (still am, still do).
While Novak does equate sports with religious experience (“If sports were entertainment, why should we care?), the book is also a cultural critique of political attitudes shaped in the 1960s and centered on the postmodern “holy trinity” of race, gender and class.
In challenging notions of work as life that stem from both Marxism and traditional Protestantism, Novak revels in play, fusing sports and the arts:
“Sports are our chief civilizing agent. Sports are our most universal art form. Sports tutor us in the basic lived experience of the humanist tradition.
“The hunger for perfection in sports cleaves closely to the driving core of the human spirit.”
Novak carries on this way for more than 300 pages. But his thoughts on sports for women, so far ahead of their time, have earned my enduring respect.
The father of daughters, he wrote of the need for females to find their own ways of experiencing sports, rebuking feminists and journalists who see sports strictly through a prism of cultural politics. Their biggest target has been American football, but Novak repeatedly demolishes the dogma:
“Football gives the lie to those who believe that the human being is fundamentally rational, liberal, peaceable, sweetly cooperative. In football, the dream of many a first-grade teacher for her darling little boys is shattered.”
In my 2012 e-book, “Beyond Title IX: The Cultural Laments of Women’s Sports,” I quoted Novak in an elegant, pitch-perfect rejoinder to those who presume that culture is malleable, especially as it pertains to sports:
“Cultures express the variety human liberty introduces into nature. There is a range of freedom for cultural choice, but that range is finally limited by nature itself and by previous history.”
I can’t give “The Joy of Sports” its proper due here, and the book has flaws. But to me, nothing surpasses its aim of restoring the soul — and joy — of sports.