book review


Books I’m reading

1.  The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
2.  Zealot by Reza Aslan
3.  Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
4.  Strategy by Captain B.H. Liddell Hart
5.  The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe


Tao Te ChingBooks I’ve Read More than Once in the Past Year

1.  The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
2. Tiny Beautiful Things, Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
3.  Tao Te Ching by Lao Tszu
4.  300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
5. Do the Work by Steven Pressfield



Recent Favorites

1.  Tiny Beautiful Things, Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
2.  300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
3.  When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
4.  American Gods by Neil Gaiman
5.  Vox by Nicholson Baker


ObstacleRecent Favorite Audio Books

1.  The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
2.  The 50th Law by 50 Cent and Robert Greene
3.  But What If We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman
4.  The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
5.  Getting Unstuck by Pema Chödrön


Satanic VersesBooks I need to reread

1.  Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
2.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
3.  Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
4.  The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
5.  Vertigo by W. G. Sebald



Books currently on my nightstand

1.  Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
2.  The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
3.  Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
4.  The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour
5.  Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön



Last five books read

1.  Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays
2.  This is How by Augusten Burroughs
3.  You are a Complete Disappointment: A Triumphant Memoir of Failed Expectations by Mike Edison
4.  Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed
5.  Seducing the Demon by Erica Jong



Last five books read on kindle

1.  300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
2.  The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
3.  Levels of the Game by John McPhee
4.  The Art of War by Sun Tzu
5.  Tiny Beautiful Things, Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed


Last five poetry books I’ve read from

1.  On the Pulse of Morning by Maya Angelou
2.  New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
3.  When One has Lived a Long Time Alone by Galway Kinnell
4.  Inferno by Dante
5.  The Captain Lands in Paradise by Sarah Manguso


Graphic Novels

1.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
2.  The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
3.  Cages by Dave McKean
4.  V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
5.  Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi


Books currently on our coffee table

1.  The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects  by Giorgio Vasari
2.  Exactitudes by Ellie Uyttenbroek and Ari Versluis
3.  Cy Twombly: Centre Pompidou
4.  Luigi Ghiri: Pensiero Paesaggio Thought Landscape 
5.  Jean-Michel Basquiat: Mudec


all art is propagandaThe Next Five Books

1.  Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
2.  The Ending of Time by Jiddu Krishnamurti and David Bohm
3.  Against Everything, Essays by Mark Grief
4.  Dry by Augusten Burroughs
5.  All Art is Propaganda by George Orwell


“Physically loose, and mentally tight.”

This was Arthur Ashe’s motto and mantra, which I came across while reading Ryan Holiday’s The Ego is the Enemya book I’ve read three times in the last year. It’s currently my second favorite book—it’s also my second favorite Ryan Holiday book—The Obstacle is the Way being my favorite

I love many things about Ryan Holiday’s books (I’ll write more onHoliday in a column down the road), but the one thing I’d like to point out here is that I am never at a loss for things to read after reading one of his books. I always end up with several books I feel I have to read next.

Levels of the GameSo I went questing to find books on Arthur Ashe. His Days of Grace is in my queue. But I spotted Levels of the Game on Amazon. I had enjoyed John McPhee’s book on Bill Bradley’s basketball days at Princeton so much I decided to read that next.

Arthur Ashe was in many ways the Jackie Robinson of Tennis. Except, as McPhee points out, there were many many good players in the Negro leagues that would have performed well in Major League Baseball, all things being equal. Which, of course, they weren’t. Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers because he thought Robinson was mentally tough enough to endure everything that would be thrown at him—the angry crowds, the racism, the calls that would go against him, the physical cheap shots that players would take at him. But Arthur Ashe, as a black tennis player, was peerless.

So like the boxer, Joe Louis, who was a master at keeping his emotions in check in the ring, Ashe kept his opinions about the umpire’s calls to himself.  He channeled his energy into hustle and focus. Besides making him more fun to watch—not only are tirades not entertaining, they are are embarrassment to tennis, to sports, to all mankind—it kept his focus on what he could control, making him harder to rattle. He’s the opposite of bitchy players like Jimmy Conners or John McEnroe.

McPhee: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play.”

Levels of the Game is structured around the 1968 U.S. Open semi-finals match between Ashe and Clark Greabner. The book follows the points of the match, adding in reflections by the players on a moment by moment basis, as well as biographical information about their upbringing, their families and the paths that brought them to this match. Graebner is the all-American boy type. Strong and hard-hitting, handsome, and well respected by people in tennis including Ashe, who was a friend and Davis Cup teammate. Graebner is given equal time by McPhee and seems likable and someone you might rout for—except maybe against Ashe.

McPhee: “A tight, close match unmarred by error and representative of each player’s game at its highest level will be primarily a psychological struggle, particularly when the players are so familiar with each other that there can be no technical surprises.”

It’s hard not to like Ashe. He’s an underdog, has obstacles to overcome, his play is described as fluid. His confidence fluctuates, and when things start going right for him, he begins taking chances with his shots. McPhee, writing about a turning point in the match: “Ashe is now obviously loose. Loose equals dangerous. When a player is loose, he serves and volleys at his best level. His general shotmaking ability is optimum. He will try anything.”

McPhee successfully interjects their memories next to his description of the game. He shows how a point here and a point there, how just a few inches, could have really tipped this match. But the main thing you get out of this book is how Ashe’s stoic attitude gives him his best shot to win the match, win the crowd, the respect of the judges, and even win the admiration of his opponents. He deals with details but he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He controls what he can control, lets go what he cannot. As the match unfolds and Ashe loosens up and his confidence grows—its an amazing thing to read. “Physically loose, and mentally tight” is totally how I’d love to live my life.


Sense of Where You AreAfter finishing Levels of the Game, I immediately reread A Sense of Where You Are, McPhee’s book about Bill Bradley’s senior basketball season at Princeton. First off, this is a really great basketball book. His descriptions of Bradley’s moves, the offense and defense of the game are precisely and eloquently done. He really zeros in on Bradley’s main strengths—discipline and concentration. McPhee describes how Bradley, not the most physically gifted athlete, deconstructs a move, his reverse pivot for example, breaks it into it’s component parts, then focuses on his footwork, then on the shooting motion, and finally putting it all together into a devastating, hard-to-defend package.

“His creed,” McPhee writes, “which he picked up from Ed Macauley, is ‘When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.’”

Here’s McPhee description of Bradley’s warm-up routine: “In Philadelphia that night, what he did was, for him, anything but unusual. As he does before all games, he began by shooting set shots close to the basket, gradually moving back until he was shooting long sets from 20 feet out, and nearly all of them dropped into the net with an almost mechanical rhythm of accuracy. Then he began a series of expandingly difficult jump shots, and one jumper after another went cleanly through the basket with so few exceptions that the crowd began to murmur. Then he started to perform whirling reverse moves before another cadence of almost steadily accurate jump shots, and the murmur increased. Then he began to sweep hook shots into the air. He moved in a semicircle around the court. First with his right hand, then with his left, he tried seven of these long, graceful shots-the most difficult ones in the orthodoxy of basketball-and ambidextrously made them all. The game had not even begun, but the presumably unimpressible Philadelphians were applauding like an audience at an opera.”

Both books transcend a sports book categorization. The sport parts are precisely written and are informed by the biographical, psychological, philosophical aspects of the stories. These are books that a sports curmudgeon could enjoy. Finally, Arthur Ashe and of Bill Bradley are humans you can learn from. If you could work toward what they were really amazing at—discipline, focus, being fluid in the moment—you’d totally be a more effective, more completely realized human being. And your backhand or hook shot would be vastly improved.