February 7, 2013

What's the most literary sport?

It's a cliche that baseball is the most literary sport, but I think the real winner is mountain climbing, which in my youth supported a vast outpouring of books despite not being a spectator sport, and not even having many participants. (Here's somebody's list of Top 100 Mountaineering Books.)

Mountaineering is half sport / half exploration. Polar exploration is a related field that has generated numerous books.

Novelist Will Self notes:
For many years I liked nothing better than to lie down – preferably in low-lying country such as East Anglia – and lose myself in the halting, pained progress of mountain climbers being winched ever-upwards by their own deranged romanticism.

The most celebrated mountaineering figure before WWII was George Mallory, last sighted within 1,000 feet of the summit of Mt. Everest. (His frozen body was found in 1999.)

Mallory was not just a daring climber and an articulate man, he was on the fringes of Bloomsbury, which didn't hurt his fame.
In October 1905, Mallory entered Magdalene College, Cambridge to study history. There, he became good friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group including James Strachey, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, and Duncan Grant, who painted several portraits of Mallory. Mallory was a keen oarsman and rowed in the college eight for his three years at Cambridge.

In case you were wondering (and, yes, you should), Mallory left a widow and three small children.

59 comments:

BrokenSymmetry said...

The poet Robert Graves writes admiringly of Mallory in his WW1 memoir "Goodbye to all that".

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

Mountaineering is half sport / half exploration. Polar exploration is a related field that has generated numerous books.
Speaking of books, Shackleton had to do some of both. After a year of struggles, after they finally made it out of the antarctic ice, through crazy seas to some island, they had to make a completely ridiculous hike/climb over a glacier to get to the people on the other side of the island.

Auntie Analogue said...


I agree, mountain climbing looms large in literature.

Then there's aviation. Aviation fiction abounds - including plenty of comedy; and there's also no end of romanticized non-fiction, from the Lindberghs to Lomcevoks, from Beryl Markham to barnstormers and bush pilots.

Ernest K. Gann was an early master of aviation fiction whose work still illuminates and thrills. Tom Wolfe gave us 'The Right Stuff' - very sporting, single combat Cold Warriors dueling it out in sky and space.

Military aviation still redoles of gentlemanly game and sport: aces, Red Baron, Knights of the Sky, dogfighting, aerobatics, &c. Despite the debut of drones, there's still beaucoup military aviation fiction of the Knights of the Sky sort (when I was a Kidsicle™ it was DC Comics 'Lt. Honny Cloud: Navajo Ace).

It wasn't all that long ago that military aviation favored terms from the fox hunt: scouting (now reconaissance); pursuit (now fighter - though in German still jäger/hunter). A combat pilot's score was known as his "bag," as if he'd been in the woods with a 12 gauge downing woodcock.

And, if you think about it, what's more literally literary than skywriting!

Anonymous said...

"...deranged romanticism"

Well, Yes! I never found joy in jamming my bleeding fingers into a rock crack and hang from a cliff until the pain forces me to relent.

I have come to know some dark secrets of some former members of YOSAR ( Yosemite Search and Rescue ). When a climber falls, sometimes only certain body parts can be recovered which may not be passed on to the next of kin, but kept by unnamed deranged romantics as souvenirs.

Related to another post, George Mallory is not a true Mallory. His paternal grandfather changed his named from Leigh to Mallory in order to inherit the Mobberly Mallory coat of arms from his deceased wife. George Mallory is a grandson by his second wife. A comparison of Y-chromosomes would reveal non-paternity.

I know this because I descend from the Mobberly Mallory line that came to Virginia.

Papyrocentric Performativizer said...

HBD (or not much D) in mountaineering:

There’s a lot of mens in conquest of a mons: it’s mind over matter in a particularly spectacular and satisfying way. But that mens has had particular characteristics: it’s been overwhelmingly white, male and European. Recall that the Eigerwand was first climbed by Austrians and Germans. A year later, members of the same demonic demographic would set out on a different kind of conquest and start the Second World War.

Mens et Mons

Anonymous said...

I agree completely. I am no climber -- I hike gently, and suppress memories of shambolic attempts at rock climbing -- but I love mountaineering books.

Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air is perhaps my favorite, although there are indeed dozens of good ones to choose from.

The difference to me between mountaineering books and other sports lit is the stakes: if you strike out with runners on second and third a big game, it's bad, but you're not going to end up a freeze-dried corpse in the on-deck circle . . . .

SFG said...

The baseball's probably a regional thing--it's big in the Northeast, which is where the publishing houses and (famous) universities are, predominantly.

Anonymous said...

Ever seen the photos of the corpse believed to be mallory? He's dressed like he was just going out for a walk on a chilly scottish day...
that said, i have one of my fathers heavy abercrombie and fitch (when they actually made sporting goods) sweaters made for winter sport - and that thing is WARM, warmer than synthectic materials (but heavier)

What about cricket?

I guess bullfighting is just hemingway....

Anonymous said...

Side note mark halprin has a great short story about a non-mountain clibmer

Anonymous said...

perhaps not literary but swimming probably has one of the highest iqs for competitive athletes - the top schools are stanford, cal Berkeley and the like.

Conatus said...

If you want to call it a sport, I would label fly fishing the most literary. I have seen it called the most misanthropic sport since a huge theme is solitude and 'Get out of my beat(fishing area) you ignorant intruder.' From The Compleat Angler to the Big Two Hearted River these guys go on and on about the ceremonial mysteries of fur and feather lying on the meniscus of a stream. I suppose the solitary, man-fooling-nature aspect of fly fishing has a tendency to encourage the noble closer-to-
god feelings while the zero sum aspects of other sports emphasizes the monkey in us just a little too much. This holy aspect of fly fishing(Brad Pitt is the priest) made it ripe for balloon popping which a guy named John Gierach made a good living out of by writing six or seven humorous books on fly fishing.
But just read any of the fly fishing mags and you will see how this gear centric, weather dependent sport? gives rise to a boatload of words.

Anonymous said...

There are practically no blacks or Hispanics in the American climbing scene, neither in the northeast nor in the southwest. You can spend a month out in Joshua Tree or in the Eastern Sierras and see maybe one black guy. It's mainly whites and a handful of Asians.

And yet I've never once heard the SWPL, anti-racist types who sometimes climb ever point this out and wonder about how their privilege is keeping the black man off the cliffs. Or something.

Anonymous said...

Aleister Crowley was also quite a prominent mountaneer. And mountain climbing films were a stock genre in pre-WW II and Nazi Germany. It's how Leni Riefenstahl got her start. I guess every sport has a dark side.

Podsnap said...

Cricket is a pretty literary sport - I have read one estimate from David Frith at 10,000 books on cricket.

Frith wrote a book about the high number of cricketers who have committed suicide. The foreward was written by Peter Roebuck, a former player who killed himself just recently. Roebuck was a staunch hater of the west (particularly Australia where he lived) and defender of the tanned who was allegedly prone to caning and otherwise sexually molesting young thirdworlders.

Cricket is probably so literary because, like mountain climbing, it initially attracted literary Oxbridge types as players and the tradition went on from there.

anony-mouse said...

He left a widow and three children? Such a shame. Oscar Wilde left a widow and two, one more than Alfred Douglas.

George said...

Sailing/sea ventures have spawned a huge number of books.

Anonymous said...

According to Hemingway, mountaineering is actually one of the three ONLY sports--the others being motor racing and bullfighting. The rest, as he put it, are not 'sports' at all, but rather boys' games played by grown men.

However, the literary quality of motorsports writing hasn't always been great. I can't speak to bullfighting.

Somebody (you, Steve?) came up with the theory that a ball "sport"'s literary eminence is inversely proportional to the size of the ball. Basketball hasn't produced much worth reading. Tom Boswell noted that while a good football book comes out every couple of years, every single year brings at least two or three good baseball tomes.

But golf, having the smallest ball, has the best claim, starting with Wodehouse.

Henry Canaday said...

“In those last two years at the Sforza court, Leonardo also made several journeys within northern Italy. In 1498 he accompanied the Moor on a visit to Genoa, and on another occasion he made a trip to the Alps. There he climbed Monte Rosa, Europe’s second-highest mountain, a huge glacier-covered massif at the Swiss-Italian border with ten major peaks, most of them higher than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). Even today, ascending one of these peaks is very strenuous...One has to be in good condition, accustomed to high altitude. In Leonardo’s times, such an ascent must have been extraordinary...clearly he still had the necessary strength to climb mountains in his forties.”

- Fritjof Capra, “The Science of Leonardo”

Anonymous said...

Touching The Void, by Joe Simpson, is a book and a movie. You should check out the movie, Steve, being a movie buff. It's very good.

peterike said...

If you like mountain climbing, the German film "North Face" is absolutely stunning. The re-creations of being in the Alps during a snow storm are done incredibly well. Streaming on NetFlix right now.

el supremo said...

If hunting can be treated as a sport, then it is the clear winner. In the last 60 years Hemingway and Faulkner alone would put it over the top, along with others like Jim Harrison.

Of course, the long heritage of hunting among the gentry gives it a historical list of writers (Tolstoy, Turgenev, and countless others) that no other sport can match.

Alfa158 said...

It's a shame that their camera wasn't with Mallory's body. Mountaineers have speculated that there was a slight chance they might have made it to the summit, and that could have settled it one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting talk by Jimmy Chin where he talks about climbing as a very cerebral sport. He explains why, and shows a great photo of a group of climbers waiting for the office to open in Yosemite - They all have books open that they are totally absorbed in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0GDGB3PMtQ

Chin is also interesting in that he is an atypical Chinese American in that he bummed around just climbing for several years before becoming a very successful photographer/elite extreme athlete.

Tim Howells

Peter the Shark said...

You can make a good case that hunting is the most literary sport, and has the longest literary tradition.

gwern said...

> In case you were wondering (and, yes, you should), Mallory left a widow and three small children.

The CEO of Intrade died a little back on Mt. Everest: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Delaney_%28businessman%29

"He is survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter who was born whilst Delaney was away on the expedition." (three days before he died)

Kylie said...

Cricket.

Kylie said...

Cricket.

Otis McWrong said...

Golf has a lot of words dedicated to it as well, as does baseball. Who was it that said "the quality of sports writing varies inversely with the size of the ball"?

A lot of golf writing focuses on the metaphysical. I think golf lends itself to literature because a) its a game for the more educated classes, at least in the US, and b) its a thinking person's game. You can't just bash away at the ball.

Baseball has a lot of "azure fields of symmetry" type of nonsense, but there is a lot of good stuff out there. Daniel Okrent's "Nine Innings" for example is fascinating. That said, the higher levels baseball are populated largely by knuckleheads (any college football player would tell you they knew they'd signed up for an easy course when they walked in first day and saw a few baseball players in the room) and the writing is still good, so maybe my theory on golf writing is incorrect.

Heh said...

Does this mean you don't think North Dallas Forty, Semi Tough, and Paper Lion were literary masterpieces?

C. Van Carter said...

Most literary sports team.

C. Van Carter said...

Most literary sports team.

Geoff Matthews said...

And all three kids were under 10 (and the son was ~4).
Seems rather irresponsible to undertake a risk like that when you have dependent children, but I suppose that attitude is also what made Britain great.

Reg Cæsar said...

Widow and children aside, a certain demographic claims that Grant did a little more than just paint Mallory. This could be wishful thinking on their part, or Grant's-- he had his way with both Keynes and Strachey, the latter his cousin.

Anonymous said...

Pool / billiards
Pinball
Video Games
Chess
Checkers

pat said...

The only mountain climbing book I remember reading recently was "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" which was later made into the movie "127 Hours".

The movie only focuses on the last incident where the protagonist Aron Ralston gets stuck in a canyon and has to cut off his own arm. But this Ralston character also climbed many conventional mountains too.

Most people who see the movie wonder why he is climbing-hiking alone. Surely this is the kind of adventure that normally requires a climbing buddy. Indeed if he had had a buddy, there would have been no story. The buddy would just pull him out or go for help.

So where is the buddy? Readers of the book know that no one was with him because all his former climbing buddies would not go out with him anymore. He nearly killed three of them in an avalanche. He was crazy reckless.

He was very lucky to only lose an arm. His friends all expected him to kill himself.

Albertosaurus

dirk said...

As for sports normally thought of as sports, boxing would be my choice. Hemingway and Mailer, of course, but also the articulate Howard Cosell, saw into the literary dimensions of boxing. Can't really think of anyone else, though.

Most team sports are metaphors for war, but if you are a great writer, why write about metaphors for war when you can write about war?

Boxing brings us into the zero-sum dimension of individual human experience. (Of course, now that it isn't zero-sum anymore, it isn't very literary anymore.)

Marc B said...

Climbers are completely over-represented in the literary world. There is so much self-mythologizing about the significance of every ascent or attempt because it is of so little real import. Even climbers who never intend to publish maintain journals at a higher rate than teenage girls. It's also a means to carve out a living for a sport that doesn't pay very well, even at the highest end.

Climbers with little significant material will resort to writing guidebooks to let the world know what they've climbed first or how important their crag/mountain range was to the progression of the endeavor. Many who climb get so incredibly caught up in their obsession that they need to tangibly validate their accomplishments in print, and it has created a glut on the market. It was always about having incredible, mind-blowing experiences few will ever know, and that's always been enough to sustain me and most of my partners. I've refused to climb with glory hounds on multiple occasions.

ironrailsironweights said...

As for sports normally thought of as sports, boxing would be my choice. Hemingway and Mailer, of course, but also the articulate Howard Cosell, saw into the literary dimensions of boxing. Can't really think of anyone else, though.

Also A.J. Leibling, whose book The Sweet Science is a masterpiece. There's also On Boxing by Joan Didion.

Peter

Anonymous said...

I can see why it's not on your radar (though I believe it has a long history in L.A.), but I'd be surprised if any sport has generated more serious literature than cricket.

Mountaineering has an in-built advantage over other sports in that its stock in trade is adventure stories, rather than descriptions of ball games.

Anonymous said...

In Britain this sport is called "hillwalking":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_walking

They don't have huge mountains in the UK, mostly big hills or small, relatively flat mountains. So the term "hillwalking" better captures the more leisurely, walking nature of the activity. Mountain climbing is much more vertical and arduous.

It's easier to be pensive and think up poems will taking a leisurely walk than mountain climbing.

Anonymous said...

"I can't speak to bullfighting."

It's a novel, but 'Blood and Sand' by Vincente Blasco Ibanez. The film was a big hit for Valentino, but it's a good book - very modern for 1909. Roissy would appreciate it.

As for hunting, R.S. Surtees is an acquired taste.

Steve Sailer said...

Let's see how hard it is to leave a comment now that I've turned on Word Verification to get out from under the mountain of spam lately being misdelivered to my Comments for Moderation file instead of to the Spam file.

Anonymous said...

Re 'Blood and Sand', I see that Valentino's co-star, Nita Naldi, was born Mary Dooley.

She was a great friend of Valentino's wife, Natacha Rambova - born Winifred Shaughnessy.

I wonder if it works in reverse? Any Irish-named actors with Russian birth names?

Anonymous said...

I'll second Touching the Void- just amazing. Fitzgerald's The Highest Andes (on Aconcagua) is well worth a read. That said, much of the recent output is just a reflection of our narcissism- self-congratulatory crap. On a behavioral spectrum from Hillary to Woodall, the trend has been, unfortunately, in favor of the latter.

Cail Corishev said...

Not literary, exactly, but it takes some intellect: Charles Goren wrote about baseball teams playing bridge in the locker room, and being reasonably good at it. It's hard to imagine that now, though.

Anonymous said...

"If you like mountain climbing, the German film "North Face" is absolutely stunning. The re-creations of being in the Alps during a snow storm are done incredibly well. Streaming on NetFlix right now.

Eastwood's Eiger SAnction from the early 70's is good and they didn't use blue screen from what I understand.

Anonymous said...

Hemingway said there are only 3 sports: car racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing.

Anonymous said...

"Touching The Void, by Joe Simpson, is a book and a movie. You should check out the movie, Steve, being a movie buff. It's very good."

To connect this to an earlier thread, Touching the VOid is directed by Kevin McDonald, who's the grandson of great English filmmaker Emeric Pressburger.

not a hacker said...

Vicente, not Vincente. Also a good story by Blasco-Ibanez - La Barraca. According to him, a green dress signifies a loose girl.

Mr Lomez said...

The best sports novel I've ever read is Fat City by Leonard Gardner about boxing. It's a masterpiece of spare, modern prose.

End Zone by Don Delillo about college football is also a very good sports novel.

Reg Cæsar said...

Anonymous said... Hemingway said there are only 3 sports: car racing, bull
fighting and mountain climbing.


George Carlin also said there were only three sports as well: baseball, football and basketball. One criterion was the possibility of serious injury.

He ruled out ice hockey, because it used a puck, and those were also used in urinals. He grudgingly respected auto racing, as "now we're talkin' serious goddam injury."

Auntie Analogue said...


Oops: that DC Comics hero was supposed to be 'Lt. Johnny Cloud, Navajo Ace.'

Maybe I should prime myself tp spring for a new pair of bifocals.

Anonymous said...

According to him, a green dress signifies a loose girl.

"And not a real green dress; that's cruel."

- Canadian Proverb

Anonymous said...

A surprising number of physicists have been climbers of note. William Shockley, Henry Kendall, Frank Sacherer, & George Irving Bell are a few of the notable physicists who climbed. The sport doesn't seem to attract many unintelligent people to it.

Polar exploration also has very good literature. Aspley Cherry-Garrad's book "The Worst Journey in the World" is one my favorites.

Five Daarstens said...

I'm surprised nobody mentioned the Eiger Sanction. I never read the book, but it was a terrific movie starring Clint Eastwood.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

Eastwood's Eiger SAnction from the early 70's is good and they didn't use blue screen from what I understand."

The climbing scenes in that movie were fascinating as I recall (I'm not a climber), though the story was pretty ridiculous. It was also Eastwood's funniest movie - a lot of great lines in that one.

Anonymous said...

I also nominate fly fishing. "Why should not old men be mad? / Some have known a likely lad / That had a sound fly-fisher's wrist / Turn to a drunken journalist" --Yeats*

RE: mountain climbing, don't forget such explicitly literary ascents as Petrarch's climbing Mont Ventoux in 1336, an event of huge artistic importance.

And there's the Auden/Isherwood play, The Ascent of F6...

* Nice HBD reference in the 2nd quatrain

-Provencal

Anonymous said...

Most literary sport?

Fly fishing.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Izaak Walton was a bait fisherman. The portion of "The Compleat Angler" on fly-fishing was written by his friend Charles Cotton.

I am surprised no one has mentioned hunting (i.e., riding to hounds) as a literary sport. As a subject of literary effort, it is ancient. Xenophon's "Cynegeticus" and two treatises on horsemanship touch directly on it. Arrian's "On coursing" is another classical work. Numerous mediaeval and early modern works exist on this favorite sport of aristocrats and royalty. The Victorian author R.S. Surtees made it the subject of several novels. Wikipedia notes:

"As a creator of comic personalities, Surtees is still very readable today. Thackeray envied him his powers of observation, while William Morris considered him 'a master of life' and ranked him with Dickens. The novels are engaging and vigorous, and abound with sharp social observation, with a keener eye than Dickens for the natural world. Perhaps Surtees most resembles the Dickens of Pickwick Papers, which was originally intended as mere supporting matter for a series of sporting illustrations to rival Jorrocks."

As a journalist, Surtees's great accomplishment was as founder in 1853 of "The Field," the British sporting magazine, still going strong 160 years later. We may contrast its lasting success with the short run of Dickens's "Household Words," founded in 1850 and discontinued in 1859, or the two short-lived newspapers on which Thackeray lost most of his inheritance.