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The Literature of Soccer-Football, Volume I: Fever Pitch

As a lover of literature and a lover of soccer-football, I'm on a quest to discover the best books about the sport. In each installment of this series I will discuss my thoughts on a different soccer book with an eye toward how it has helped me develop a greater understanding of the history, culture, tactics, and players of the game. Hopefully this series will serve as a game-plan for those looking to do the same...

Author: Nick Hornby

Year: 1992

Rating: Three points

What is it: A memoir of the author's obsession with the English soccer team Arsenal FC from the late 60s until the mid-90s. What started with a reluctant Saturday excursion with his estranged father turns into an all-abiding passion, a madness, that affects every aspect of Hornby's life as a young man. Fever Pitch is not only an autobiography of a young man's life, it's also a cultural history of football fandom, as Hornby shows the way the game and its place in society changed during the course of his youth. From the days when football was looked down upon as a working class obsession and standing room seats cost a few pence, right up to the days of the billion dollar premier league, Hornby's book is a priceless glimpse at English soccer through the eyes of a dedicated and intelligent fan.

Who Wrote it: If you know the movies High Fidelity, About a Boy, or, well, Fever Pitch (yes, the rom-com about the Red Sox), then you're already somewhat acquainted with Nick Hornby. He's one of the giants. If there's a cross-roads where intelligent literature meets commercial marketability, Hornby is sitting there living off his royalties. A trenchant intellect, a pop-culture savant, a master writer, and just a flat-out funny guy, Hornby was born and grew up in London, educated at Cambridge, and spent his 20s as a school teacher before hitting it big as a novelist. I think of him as kind of like a Bill Bryson crossed with Chuck Klosterman crossed with...somebody else I can't think of right now, but somebody else. 

Who Should Read It: Anyone. If you like good books and you like soccer, it doesn't get more right up your alley than Fever Pitch. Even if you like good books but hate soccer, or hate to read but love soccer (either one is a sad state of affairs, but whatever), you should still read Fever Pitch. It's just a great book. 

What it's About and What it's Not About: This book is about soccer only in that soccer is the sport that the memoirist is obsessed with. Does that makes sense? What I mean is, Fever Pitch is primarily a memoir and secondarily a soccer book. Don't read this book hoping to get any insight into what's happening on the field; rather, read it to hear a master writer tell the story of his life though the lens of his obsession with his favorite soccer team.

As Hornby proceeds through his adolescence, you'll be there with him as he graduates from going to the games with his father, to going by himself, navigating the metro and the train system on his own for the first time. Then, as he matures, moving from the family stands to the sometimes violent "terraces" behind the goal, where the hooligans watch, later renting an apartment in North London so he can live next to the stadium, and even later as his fandom wanes due to the obligations of adult life.

In the process, you'll get a really fascinating cultural history of soccer as Hornby describes how his obsession followed the undulations of the times and technology. When he starts following Arsenal it's not even possible to watch the games on T.V.; by the time he writes the book, the games are much more available on T.V. but it's almost not possible to afford a seat in the stadium any more. During his lifetime, English soccer changed from a mostly working-class pastime, with dilapidated stadiums, violent fans, low salaries and relatively little international attention -- an era that culminated in the Hillsborough tragedy -- to become the squeaky-clean, sponsor and family friendly, billion dollar industry that it is today.

But again, it's not completely about soccer, bear that in mind. Hornby writes about how his obsession with Arsenal gives him common ground with people he might otherwise not have any common ground with; how it makes his job as a teacher easier; how it makes having a mature adult relationship more difficult; and about what it's like having to structure his life around an obsession with a sports team. Is his obsession ridiculous and a bit childish? Yes! And he knows it, which makes the book all the more funny.

Why Read it: It's funny, easy to read, and you'll identify with it even if you've never watched a football game in your life. Because even if you've never been obsessed with sports team, you've probably gotten obsessed with something in life, and even if've lived life and in the hands of such a master craftsman as Hornby, you won't be able to help but identify with something in the pages of this book. In the process you'll read what amounts to a time-travel book and get a look at a place and time that, unless you're a 50 year old Londoner and a soccer fan, is foreign to you. If you're a sports fan but not a soccer fan, you'll definitely sympathize with Hornby's maddening lust for his beloved team and, maybe, develop a bit more sympathy for soccer and its fans. And if you're a soccer fan or a budding soccer fan, Fever Pitch will give you a solid base for understanding the modern history of English soccer and what it means to the English, an understanding which is imperative if you're ever going to move beyond a purely technical appreciation of the game, as the history of soccer and the history of England are one.

Sideline Note: Once you've read Fever Pitch, the Book, watch Fever Pitch, the Movie. And no, not the Drew Barrymore-Jimmy Fallon rom-com about the Red Sox, I mean the 1997 British version of Fever Pitch featuring Colin Firth that's actually about soccer. Aside from being in another league than the 2005 U.S. rom-com (in that it's not a paltry Hollywood adaptation in which the only thing in common with the book is the title), it's actually a half-way decent and vastly underrated film. But...this isn't a movie review blog post, so the rest my friends is up to you...


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