Thursday, June 30, 2016

Is A.J. Liebling's 'The Sweet Science' the greatest sports book of all time?

A.J. Liebling
I finished reading a very fine sports-related book earlier this week, and I highly recommend it to those of you in the reading audience - A.J. Liebling’s 1956 book, “The Sweet Science.”

To be perfectly honest, I’d never heard of this boxing book before 2002 when Sports Illustrated named it the No. 1 sports book of all time, ahead of such greats “Friday Night Lights,” “The Natural,” “The Boys of Summer” and “Ball Four.” I’d read all of those books, and thought they were all pretty good, so I figured that “The Sweet Science” had to be extra good to beat out all of those outstanding books.

Here’s how Sports Illustrated described “The Sweet Science” in its Dec. 16, 2002 issue.
“Pound-for-pound the top boxing writer of all time, Liebling is at his bare-knuckled best here, bobbing and weaving between superb reporting and evocative prose. The fistic figures depicted in this timeless collection of New Yorker essays range from champs such as Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson to endearing palookas and eccentric cornermen on the fringes of the squared circle. Liebling's writing is efficient yet stylish, acerbic yet soft and sympathetic. ("The sweet science, like an old rap or the memory of love, follows its victims everywhere.") He leavens these flourishes with an eye for detail worthy of Henry James. The one-two combination allows him to convey how boxing can at once be so repugnant and so alluring.”

I really enjoyed this book and now understand why it was ranked so highly by Sports Illustrated. This book was hilarious in more than a few spots, and was very educational for someone like me who has a novice’s level of knowledge of boxing.

Ever since hearing about this book, my biggest question was about the title. I assumed that “The Sweet Science” was a reference to boxing. As it turns out, Liebling quotes 19th century sports journalist Pierce Egan throughout his book, including more than a few references to Egan’s famous boxing history book, “Boxiana.” One of these quotes refers to boxing as “The Sweet Science of Bruising!”

I later learned that the term, “The Sweet Science,” was a reference to the European tradition in which “gentlemen” were schooled in the “sciences” of sword fighting, shooting and fist fighting. Fisticuffs, aka boxing, being the least lethal of these “sciences” was called “The Sweet Science.”

If you read and like “The Sweet Science,” you might want to read some of the other books on SI’s Top 100 Sports Books List. In addition to those mentioned above, the list also includes such fine books as “A Season on the Brink” by John Feinstein, “Paper Lion” by George Plimpton, “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean, “Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand, “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, “Eight Men Out” by Eliot Asinof and “The Science of Hitting” by Ted Williams and John Underwood.

In the end, I highly recommend that you check out “The Sweet Science,” even if you just have a passing interest in the sport of boxing. If you’re like me, you’ll likely never look at boxing the same way after having reading Liebling’s famous book on the subject.

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