2020 Reading List

Borrowing from the example of David Sivers’ book notes, I wanted to keep track of the books I’ve read so far this year, along with a short snippet about what I gleaned from and/or my thoughts on each one.

January

There’s some carry-over from December, but I’ll count it here.

The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports

As a soccer fan and history nerd, I really enjoyed this read. English soccer fans seem to deride American sports for their franchise systems and salary caps (among many other idiosyncrasies), but the marketing, business planning, and revenue generation transformation that the first tier of English soccer has undergone over the last 28 years seems very American, no? [Amazon]

Moneyball

The quintessential sports analytics book, albeit without much in the way of practical knowledge. Michael Lewis straddles the line between novel and non-fiction here, weaving the story of Billy Beane himself into the greater narrative of the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics of the early-00s (not to say the team isn’t still cheap) and their exploitation of market inefficiencies (now one of my favorite phrases) in baseball. Lewis argues that one can not tell the story of the As and their statistical prowess without digging into the man that encouraged them (hand over fist, at times) to embark on that journey, and I’m inclined to agree – understanding Beane’s story reveals how he thinks critically about baseball and his task at hand: finding unheralded players that were left adrift because of popular, yet outmoded, scouting and player evaluation practices. [Amazon]

The Genius of Desperation

A veritable encyclopedia of innovation in American football, exploring how the strategy of the sport has evolved as it has grown from its humble Midwestern roots into a multi-billion dollar highly-corporatized enterprise. Innovations to the game were like the ticks and tocks of a clock: offenses would change, and then defenses would scramble to change in response; then defenses would evolve, and offenses would have to scheme their way past. This constant push and pull of schematic innovation has been part of football for years, but more modern offense-supporting rules have skewed the balance in the favor of today’s quarterbacks and wide receivers. Only time will tell when the other foot will drop, allowing defenses to dominate again. [Amazon]

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

A delightful retelling of sabermetric experimenting done by two Baseball Prospectus writers in independent league baseball in California, examining all sorts of data-driven decisions taken in a sporting setting. Compared to the 2015 Sonoma Stompers, Billy Beane was working with Scrooge McDuck’s vault – authors Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller played both general manager and baseball operations department to squeeze out the most value from a payroll mere fractions of the size of a MLB team’s and a player pool of minor-league castoffs. [Amazon]

Infomocracy

An interesting cyber-punk/near-future novel concerning election manipulation in a world organized by 100,000-person regions called “centenals” that vote for global parties (many of which you might recognize as today’s multinational corporations) to determine local governance and the world “Supermajority” (IE: a supermajority of centenals for a single party). The omnipotent “Information” service, a fusion of Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook, provides citizens with a wide variety of services (payment, news aggregation, calls, messages, entertainment, etc) and contains a wealth of objective, meticulously fact-checked, and fastidiously organized content on said election.

I found Infomocracy to be lacking in some world-building and oddly paced. The beginning drops readers right into the narrative without a primer on the politics of the universe itself, which are difficult to understand even when explained separately. The plot didn’t really develop until well in the final fourth or fifth of the book, but then the novel wrapped up very quickly with little clarity on the new state of the book’s universe and the future of its characters. The book is certainly a timely read and one can pretty easily imagine movie action sequences built out of its climactic moments (which is one of my favorite things about these types of books), but it’s missing some narrative infrastructure. Amazon tells me that Infomocracy is just book one of a series, so maybe there’s more closure to be found in books two and three. [Amazon]

Soccernomics (World Cup 2018 Edition)

A thesis on the socioeconomics and data analysis that have shaped modern soccer. There are a number of interesting tidbits in here, including an analysis of historic relative performance (“which countries over- and under-perform in international play given their resources?”) and the Renaissance-like intellectual networks bridging together the soccer strongholds of western Europe and powering the fusion of various “national” soccer identities into an effective style of club play parroted across the continent (Said network does not include the British Isles, who continue to prefer to bully-ball their way to unsatisfying tournament finishes for both club and country – the 2018 World Cup notwithstanding). I did find Soccernomics a bit dry at points, but given that authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski have woven together data-driven analysis and the history of the sport, that is probably expected. The numbers, as always, tell the story. [Amazon]

February

Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer

Incredibly meticulous historic review of the evolution of soccer tactics since the inception of the sport. Wilson emphasizes that tactics, like other elements of culture, was also subject to exchange – the spread of the game and its traditionally isolated development in each country that now makes up the big 5 Euro leagues, along with the world’s foremost non-European soccer nations, facilitated this wonderful blend of styles and diversity of play as the game grew and globalization progressed. Inverting the Pyramid and The Genius of Desperation are effectively the same book written for different sports; tactical innovation ebbs and flows between attack and defense, regardless of sporting context. On both ends, the goal is to build a better mousetrap, and like Farrar, Wilson spotlights individual innovators in the sport and how they meddled with contemporary notions of how to play the game to find a competitive edge.

[Amazon]

March

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football

College football is full of sleeze and scandal – everyone who follows the sport knows this. However, much of that is often shrouded in legend and often violators of the so-called “social contract” of college sport often go unpunished. Why? It’s typically in their (and their program’s) best interest to lie, cheat, and steal – whether that be to the NCAA about impermissible benefits, to recruits about various items, and to current players about compensation. The System does a great job of shining a light on these shadowy parts of the sport and paints a vivid image of the underhanded underpinnings of the sport that keep the gravy train rolling in various football-crazed parts of the country. It seems that in college football, you don’t just cheat to win or to get ahead – you cheat to keep up, and everyone’s doing it.

[Amazon]

April

Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won

Rigorous statistical analysis and validation of various sporting cliches written approachably for the non-statisticians among us (myself included). Scorecasting does get dry and bogged down in minutiae at times, but for the most part, it’s a good read to understand the numbers that prove (well, more often disprove) entrenched sporting ideology.

[Amazon]

May

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

Tight, page-turning memoir by Phil Knight on the first 10ish years at Nike. Knight has a certain frenetic writing style that is initial off-putting, but ends up fitting the themes of entrepreneurship: business is fast-moving and you’ve got to think on your feet – and in Knight’s case, about his feet.

I was a bit disappointed with the content Knight covers in Shoe Dog; I was expecting to get into the story of how Nike courted Michael Jordan and Knight’s initial monetary and apparel contributions to the University of Oregon athletics program. Alas, it was not to be, but Knight does admit that the book isn’t necessarily meant to be a true memoir – it’s meant to capture a moment in his life and for readers to grab a whiff of the thrill and anxiety that dominated the early days at Nike.

[Amazon]

June

Bad Blood

Great book on the rise and fall of biotech unicorn Theranos, as well as its figurehead and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Carreyrou paints a stunning picture of a college dropout that wanted so much to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs that she was willing to lie, cheat, and silence anyone in her path. Carreyrou also shines a light on how Holmes politicked her way to being a billionaire: her Stanford connections and her father’s contacts got her in the door with investors and potential directors, and her charisma sold them on what ended up being a pipe dream. Stories like these, and the whistleblowers behind them, continue to prove to me the importance of, and the difference between, believing in what you’re doing at work and being ok with what you’re doing at work.

[Amazon]

Friday Night Lights

Source material for the 2004 eponymous NBC show – a multi-layered narrative built into the context of high-school football. Bissinger does an amazing job of weaving together the threads of racial divisions (physical and psychological), economic development around oil, and adolescent egos to produce this rich story about a small Texas town and how it had almost entirely hitched its wagon to the success of its local football team. I also found it extremely ironic how Bissinger noted in the afterword that the Permian football team (at the center of the book) had fallen into consistent mediocrity in the 25+ years since he wrote Friday Night Lights.

[Amazon]

None of the Above

This book is a tale of two cities halves: the first half mixes Robinson’s teaching history and the timeline of the late-00s Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal with the complicated (to say the absolutely least) relationship between corporate education interests, real estate developers, and race relations in Atlanta public policy and education decision-making. This part of the book is an incredibly historically-dense and scathing read about how Atlanta’s academically-struggling communities became that way due to historic factors foisted upon them.

The second half of the book is entirely about the trial for the scandal from Robinson’s eyes, as well as life events that intertwined with appearing in court. This portion I liked much less – not because of the author’s perspective, but I didn’t find the minutiae of the trial as interesting as I did the details on historic civic development. This is mostly a personal preference – others may enjoy Robinson’s unfurling of the legal drama she became embroiled in rather than the dry history lesson that preceded it.

[Amazon]

July

I didn’t finish a book in July, unfortunately.

August

The Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA

The combined, rootin’-tootin’, NCAA-hatin’ brainchild of former members of SBNation’s college football vertical, the Banner Society. It’s more an anthology of stories than a cohesive narrative, but each story is rich with vibrant allegory that combines the historical misdeeds of the NCAA with biting satire and caricature. If you like college football, you’ll really like this book. It was worth every penny of the $2.26 I paid for it (when it was on preorder with a “name your own price” offer) and really worth much, much more. It’s a shame these talented writers haven’t found another home for their combined works yet (at time of writing, at least), and I really hope they find one soon.

[Gumroad]