What to Read Next (No. 170): Beartown and Bagger Vance
On Tuesday, I sent premium subscribers a list of my favorite sports books. I started with just a little bit about why I was focusing on that theme this week:
Thanks to Larry Olmsted’s permission in his fun book Fans, I’ve been leaning into my sports fandom and have really enjoyed watching and following baseball this year. As I get older, it’s the game that I seem to appreciate more and more. It’s a little bit slower. It’s more cerebral. It rewards constancy—you have to play every day. It’s not so violent (football) or explosive (basketball). It’s even more relatable: I can’t put a ball in a hoop very well and I can’t toss a football more than about 15 yards, but I can catch and throw a baseball. I get enough chaos in my day-to-day; I’m enjoying keeping track of a game with just a little less action, frankly.
So in general, I’ve been reading a few more sports books this year. In today’s newsletter are two that I recently enjoyed. Beartown, in particular, is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year so far.
Before jumping in, a couple quick links:
Check out my appearance on episode #28 of the Joseph Wells Podcast. Joseph asked great questions over the course of this long interview and you get to hear me chat about the Art of Manliness, my reading, how the newsletter has grown, and plenty more.
I wrote a short piece on the power of writing things by hand. Check it out.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Published: 2016 | Pages: 418
“The only thing the sport gives us are moments. But what the hell is life apart from moments?”
In the small hamlet of Beartown, the youth hockey team is everything. Everything. It’s been a while since the team has had success, but a star player makes another championship a possibility. To say that this prospect makes the town a little crazy is an understatement.
There are a dozen or so coaches, players, wives, parents, and other characters who are given attention in the novel, but the real focus is on just a handful. Benji is a rascally, tough-as-nails player who has a hard time revealing who he really is. Kevin is the star of the team—and takes advantage of all the privileges that come with that perilous title. Peter is the General Manager (and former hometown prodigy), Kira is his no-nonsense wife, and Maya is the daughter who ends up bearing an unfathomable burden.
Backman does a beautiful job portraying the power of a team to bring people together: “I know it’s a game. But that’s not all it is. Not always.” He also deftly shows what can go horribly wrong when there’s a fanatical, single-minded devotion to that team.
There are plenty of hockey scenes in Beartown, but it’s really a story about a town that’s down on its luck and trying to scratch its way back from extinction. It’s about teenagers and parents and coaches and friends:
“What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”
Ultimately, it’s a novel about sports that’s not really about sports.
I’ve enjoyed all the Backman books I’ve read, but Beartown is pretty easily my favorite. The subject matter is a little heavier, but that also means it sticks with you in a more powerful way. It’s good writing, sure, but above all, Backman just knows how to tell a damn good story. It’s an engrossing read featuring characters I was sad to say goodbye to—thankfully, there’s a sequel. Recommended for all types of readers.
The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield
Published: 1995 | Pages: 269
“Life is action. Even choosing not to act, we act. We cannot do otherwise. Therefore act with vigor.”
Though better remembered for the movie starring Will Smith and Matt Damon, The Legend of Bagger Vance was first a novel—and not a very well-known one at that. Pressfield took the basic outline of the Bhagavad Gita and applied it to a golf story. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are plenty of supernatural elements.
The year is 1931. Rannulph Junah (or R. Junah; Arjuna is the protagonist of the Bhagavad Gita) is many things, but for our purposes, he’s a golfer. On Krewe Island, off the coast of Savannah, is one of the world’s (fictional) premier golf courses. Junah, aging local champ, is put in a 36-hole exhibition match at this course with two of the game’s all-time greats: Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.
Problem is, Junah has lost his swing. He needs some help from the mysterious Bagger Vance—a god-like figure who guides Junah into getting that swing back. Can he compete against the heroes? Or will he make a fool of himself?
Though the advice doled out from Vance to Junah feels a little too directed to the reader, the story is great and the lessons found within certain do apply outside the pages of the book.
Ultimately, Junah has to find his authentic swing: “Hagen and Jones do not will the swing into being, they use their will to find the swing that is already there.”
The writing brings you right back to 1930s Georgia—Pressfield does a great job putting the reader in that era. I didn’t always love the narrative structure, and some bits haven’t aged well, but those are pretty minor complaints in the grand scheme of it.
The Legend of Bagger Vance isn’t for everyone, but for folks interested in sports and competition and inner battles, it’s well worth reading.