Monday, 27 March 2017

Advance Book Review: Ballplayer by Chipper Jones

Release Date: April 4
Amazon / Goodreads

Ballplayer, Chipper Jones' somewhat-generic entry in the "star athlete memoir" genre, will probably entertain Braves and/or Jones fans but doesn't offer a ton for the casual baseball fan who never performed a Tomahawk Chop. Jones had a long and illustrious career with its fair share of ups and downs, but Ballplayer is hurt by shallow writing and many tired athlete memoir tropes. It has a few positive moments and is overall an average read, but it's hard to strongly recommend the book to the general fan. 

The book follows the tried-and-true player memoir format. Jones recounts his early years growing up as the son of a baseball coach in rural Florida and describes some impactful moments from his childhood. We learn that his switch-hitting was encouraged by his Mickey Mantle-idolizing father and how his regret about leaving his local high school for a snootier prep powerhouse in Jacksonville contributed to him staying with the Braves for his entire professional career. The bulk of the book concerns his tenure with the Braves, and gives a chronological overview of his professional career and his experiences on the field and in the clubhouse. Jones offers insight into the personalities of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox, and other Braves staff and also shares some run-ins with other players such as Barry Bonds (unsurprisingly a bit of a jerk to Jones). The broad synopses of each season drag a little bit as many of them blend together but there are a few amusing anecdotes, such as how Jones decided to go deer hunting on the day of his first-ever World Series game. The reader will also pick up some useful nuggets of baseball wisdom along the way, which is probably the best aspect of the book. Jones was a true student of the game (his future certainly lies in some kind of coaching or analyst role assuming he still wants to work) and he also has an astounding memory of his playing history. He shares tidbits such as how the major benefit of becoming a switch-hitter is preventing sliders going away from the batter and that hard-throwing pitchers with better "stuff" outperform more control-based hurlers in colder weather because batters are less warmed-up. 

Ballplayer's biggest drawbacks center on Jones' limited writing abilities. On the prose front, Jones isn't particularly strong at describing things and my Kindle counted 6 separate instances of the phrase "shit-eating grin" (and I'm not entirely convinced it captured all of them). Jones simply isn't all that great at articulating his feelings and the writing in general often came off as clunky. Even when dealing with his off-field troubles (Jones got divorced twice and had an affair with a Hooters waitress in 1997 that resulted in a son) Jones' writing reads like a public apology statement. I'm not going to play armchair psychologist and try to understand whether he's truly remorseful or not, but I will play armchair book reviewer and say that these passages weren't interesting or insightful.   

In recent years Jones has had some incendiary and foolish tweets, including suggesting the Sandy Hook school shootings were a conspiracy, making tasteless jokes about illegal immigrants, and challenging an army veteran who was angry about being snubbed for an autograph over 15 years ago to a fistfight in an extended and inane stream of threats and insults. That said, his tone isn't absurdly arrogant over the course of Ballplayer and his personality didn't bother me. Jones' peak performance coincided with my formative years and it was nice to relive some of the biggest moments of 90's baseball and read about some of the game's stars during the period, and I appreciated the times Jones shared some of his substantial wisdom about the game. Still, Ballplayer is a typical player memoir, and suffers from the same problems that plague most offerings in the genre. Braves fans will like it, but for the general fan it's just an average read. 


Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Best Books About Football

Football has set itself pretty firmly on top of the American sports pantheon in terms of national interest and economic success, but the sport's literary oeuvre doesn't have the best reputation (I blame Just Give Me the Damn Ball!). While there is ample evidence for the argument that "most football books aren't very good," there are a handful of works that are actually worth reading, which will be highlighted in the list below.

The "rules" and structure of this post are basically the same as when I wrote about the best hip-hop books: everything is loosely ordered by topic rather than rank, starred entries are especially recommended, and my personal 5 favorite books are included at the end. I stuck to non-fiction books only (which wasn't too hard, I found North Dallas Forty and Semi-Tough to be pretty overrated, though to be fair neither aged particularly well. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was decent but isn't really a football book.), and there are no limits on author appearances. Every entry includes an Amazon link in case you want to learn more about the title, this site is a labor of love and they aren't affiliate links, it's just for the benefit of the reader.

The Classics: Books Your Dad Would Recommend (That He is Justified in Recommending)
There are a few books, generally older ones, that are held in high regard by football fans and considered "required reading" by any dad or grandfather worth his salt. Sometimes (see blurb about Semi-Tough and North Dallas Forty), they are wrong, but here is where they are justified.  

Paper Lion by George Plimpton* 
For whatever reason, baseball has historically attracted the more literary types, which is why it is always an absolute treat when a writer of Plimpton's caliber decides to write about gridiron-related matters. In Paper Lion, Plimpton suits up for the Detroit Lions, joining them for training camp and participating in an intrasquad scrimmage. Curious, perceptive, and willing to make a fool of himself for the sake of journalism, Plimpton is an engaging guide through the Lions' 1963 training camp, and does an excellent job at demonstrating how a regular Joe would fare in the NFL of the early 60's (spoiler alert: not incredibly well) and giving a peek into training camp life. Plimpton also strikes up friendships with many Lions, showing the more personal sides of legends such as Dick "Night Train" Lane, Dick LeBeau, and Alex Karras (who was actually suspended for the 1963 but features in the stories of many a Lions player in the book).

Plimpton wrote a follow-up of sorts to Paper Lion with Mad Ducks and Bears, which is mainly Lions linemen Alex Karras and and John Gordy reflecting back on their careers in the game. It's not worthy of inclusion on this best-of list, but there's worse ways to spend a few hours if you really enjoyed Paper Lion.  

Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap*
Yes, another behind-the-scenes account of a Midwestern NFL team from the 60's. Kramer was a mainstay at guard for the Green Bay Packers (one of the pulling linemen for the team's fabled Power Sweep) and Instant Replay chronicles the Packers' 1967 season, in which they would win the NFL Championship in the famed Ice Bowl game (in which Kramer featured prominently in the final play) and thump the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Similar to Paper Lion, Kramer's book transports the reader back to the NFL of the 60's, which was a truly different time. It's obviously dated if you want to understand what current NFL-ers have to contend with but if you're interested in how the sport has evolved and how it was to play for Vince Lombardi you should pick this up.

About Three Bricks Shy... And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr.  
Coming only a few years after Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Blount's classic book chronicling the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1973 season presents an intimate portrait of the team and its remarkably colorful players, warts and all. This was the period right before the team would achieve juggernaut status, and most of the core that would win 4 Super Bowls from 1975 through 1980 was in place, and the reader gets a look inside one of the best NFL teams ever. Blount is a witty observer of affairs and writes with a freewheeling, semi-rambling style with frequent injections of humor. He also had loads of great material to work with, from the sartorially-advanced Frenchy Fuqua (who wore shoes with goldfish in the heel) to the inaccurately-nicknamed Mean Joe Greene to the kinda crazy Ernie Holmes (who once shot at a police helicopter with a shotgun). Blount is able to ingratiate himself with most of the team and many Steelers open up to him, including a surprisingly blase description of several players' steroid regimens (it was truly a different time).

Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger*
Anyone with an iota of perspective knows that there are more important things in life than football. Fans of the Permian Panthers in the economically-depressed town of Odessa, Texas in 1988 may have quibbled with this notion, however. Bissinger, then a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (if you're interested in urban policy check out his book on then-Philadelphia mayor and future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell) uprooted his family to Odessa to follow the Panthers' 1988 campaign and reveal what life is like in the football-mad regions of Texas (i.e. Texas). Part sociological study, part football book, Friday Night Lights excels at showcasing the team's huge impact on local morale and business and the experience of playing for a huge and elite Texas high school football squad on and off the field.

Friday Night Lights is enhanced by the elements of uncertainty and tension for the reader. The book isn't recounting a major NFL or college football team's campaign, and unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of west Texas high school football in 1988 you probably don't know how the Panthers' season is going to go. I won't spoil anything (though if you showed enough interest in the list to get this far you've probably already read Friday Night Lights) but it is quite exciting. The reader also becomes really connected and emotionally invested in these players from decades ago, and I found myself actively rooting for the team and reacting to the team's ups-and-downs like any self-respecting Odessa resident would (passionately).

Bissinger wrote a post-script of sorts with After Friday Night Lights which mainly focuses on how former Panthers star Boobie Miles has fared after the book's publication and coming to terms with reconciling his football dreams with the harshness of "depressed west Texas" reality. It's a very quick read (probably clocking in under an hour) but worthwhile if you want to see how Miles is faring today.

Books You Should Buy for Your Dad: Football History and Biography
There aren't a ton of selections here, as a good amount of football histories and biographies are team-specific and aren't compelling enough to recommend to the general football fan. Here are 2 notable exceptions.

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge
Anyone reading one of the older selections from this list will realize that the NFL has evolved tremendously from its humble beginnings as a smattering of Midwestern teams in the 1920's to a money-minting (more on that later) economic powerhouse that has somehow managed to turn even the 20-hour conference call that is the NFL Draft into a flashy television spectacle. MacCambridge has penned the authoritative tome on the complete history of the league and its development over the years. The book is strongest when it covers the war between the NFL and AFL in the 60's, when the leagues bitterly fought for the attention and dollars of the American populace, occasionally through some kooky means. While I felt the chapters on more recent NFL developments were a little weaker, this is still the best history of the league by far.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
Maraniss is an Associate Editor at The Washington Post and perhaps best known for his hefty and meticulously-researched biography of Bill Clinton. In When Pride Still Mattered, he provides a richly-detailed biography of the legendary Packers' coach that showcases Lombardi's personality (including his religious devotion, stringent perfectionism, and openness to race and sexual orientation, among others) and his experiences coaching the Packers and Redskins. It's a long read but if you want to better understand Lombardi (he is one of the few football figures who really warrants such a comprehensive biographical treatment) and why the Super Bowl trophy is named after him you should give this a read.

X's, O's and Prose: The Strategy of Football 
Starting an MBA program has provided me with a lot more exposure to people from other cultures, and thus, the opportunity to explain the basics of American football. These often-bungled attempts at education have reaffirmed that teaching the sport is hard (though not as hard as cricket, of course, which is completely impossible to grasp and I reject any contentions stating otherwise). The sport is remarkably complex, and I find it enriching to delve deeply into the tactical weeds to better understand why teams and coaches do the things they do. These next few books are for advanced football fans who are looking to deepen their knowledge of the X's and O's of the game.

The Games that Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski 
Jaworski has been a mainstay on ESPN's excellent NFL Matchup series, breaking down game film and analyzing the strategies employed by NFL teams and excitedly narrating the continual playing and rewinding of a few seconds of a play. In The Games That Changed the Game, Jaworski traces some key strategic developments in the sport through deep-dives on seven transformative games. The selections aren't always Super Bowls or playoff games, but rather the best examples of each concept: the magnitude of the game is less important that the gameplans employed therein. The book covers strategies such as Sid Gillman's Vertical Stretch, Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz, and Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, which all have influenced current NFL schemes. Each concept gets its own chapter where Jaworski provides a bit of background and then gives an in-depth breakdown of what happened in each game. Everything is explained clearly and Jaworski will also frequently diagram plays and formations to help comprehension, and the book definitely improved my knowledge around the sport, as well as a greater sense of appreciation for some of its coaching trailblazers.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan
I'm not going to provide a laundry list of achievements and feats of nerdiness to establish my football knowledge bonafides, but I will mention I played high school football, made a 7-round mock draft in eighth grade, and have read enough football books to feel sorta qualified to write a long post about my favorites in the genre. Having said all that, Take Your Eye Off the Ball was the book that most improved my understanding of the game and taught me a huge amount about a sport I already knew pretty well. Kirwan began as an NFL scout and worked in a couple of NFL front offices in the 90's before moving to journalism, and he brings a wealth of insider experience on the game. Kirwan's goal with this book is to improve fans' viewing experience by providing tools to learn about the game at a higher level. Even if you balk at adopting his involved game-charting system while you watch games, there is a lot to take away from the book.

The book is structured similarly to something like "Football for Dummies," providing a comprehensive overview of virtually every aspect of the sport (the quarterback, the NFL draft, special teams, officiating, and so on) with the occasional "Ask Pat" where he riffs on some random point about the game. The basic format and topics covered isn't original, but Kirwan goes deeper into these subjects than any book I've read. Some of the material is probably going to be review for die-hard fans, but there should be enough novel material for virtually any reader to learn a good bit about the finer nuances of the game.

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne
This book doesn't fit as well into the category as the other 2 books. While Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" offense does feature prominently, and Gwynne adeptly devotes some pages to explaining the offense and how it transformed the modern passing game and led to today's pass-happy offenses, The Perfect Pass is more than an instructive tome. The heart of the book is the dual-narrative of coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and the peripatetic paths they followed up and down the ranks of college football. Mumme bounced from high schools and NCAA minnows such as Iowa Wesleyan to developing 1999 first overall pick Tim Couch as head coach at Kentucky, with Leach eventually landing the head coaching gig at Texas Tech and leading some absurdly-proficient passing attacks based on "Air Raid" fundamentals. A lot of the book is about being a coach on the lower rungs of college football and the tremendous chasm between effort put in and actual take-home pay (the mind boggles at how any small-school college football assistant in the 80's and 90's stayed married). Mumme, a stubborn genius who has seemingly bounced around everywhere, and Leach, a well-read law school grad who can converse extensively on anything from pirates to World War II battles, are both fascinating characters and it is enjoyable to track their personal and professional development as well as the evolution of their offensive approach.

Fly on the Chalkboard: The Best "A Season With _____" Books
There existed a time when journalists offered some degree of protection for athletes when it came to off-field activities and indiscretions and their writing was strictly limited to what happened during the game. In the 60's, a new generation of journalists pejoratively dubbed "chipmunks" by the sportswriting establishment began to peel back the curtain and leverage their access to provide a rounder portrait of players and teams and offer more intimate reporting on franchises' inner-workings. The release of Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1971 both further advanced this "all-access" approach as well as illustrated its economic potential, selling like crazy. Teams across all sports began to broaden their access to reporters, allowing for a plethora of "fly-on-the-wall" books. Many of these aren't particularly good and are merely beat writers cashing in on a successful season by recycling some columns. These selections don't fall into that trap and are actually quality reads.

Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden* 
Although Bowden is probably best-known for Black Hawk Down, which was eventually adapted into a movie, he spent many years at The Philadelphia Inquirer and was on the Eagles beat for the 1992 season. Bringing the Heat is more than a tired retelling of a reasonably-successful-but-not-spectacular season of a professional football team told by a beat writer. Rather, it is an in-depth look at the Eagles' players, coaches, and ownership and a raw and honest examination of playing in the NFL. The on-field descriptions are vivid, intense, and exciting but Bringing the Heat makes this list for the quality of its richly-detailed profiles. The book is more about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles than their season. This was a team chock-full of personalities, including the fiery Buddy Ryan at head coach, the egotistical Randall Cunningham at quarterback, and Reggie White leading the defense. Defensive lineman Jerome Brown died before the 1992 season, and Bowden does a phenomenal job writing about how the team reacted to Brown's death and its impact on the team.

Bowden was not a football expert coming into the book, which is actually a positive for Bringing the Heat. He brings an objective, outsider's perspective to the team and the book is refreshingly free of the trite metaphors and cliches spouted by many sportswriters. It also doesn't hew to the set formula of these kind of books, emphasizing the characters over the plot if you will, but this makes for a refreshing take on a rather tired concept of football book.

Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff*
This is the best example of the traditional "fly-on-the-wall" genre, and probably my favorite football book released over the last 5 years. It has all the necessary components: a skilled writer, a compelling team filled with personalities (the Rex Ryan-led New York Jets), and gripping on-the-field activities, including a pretty spectacular collapse to end the season. Dawidoff spent most of his time with the Jets' coaching staff, and is able to get seemingly every member of the staff to open up to him. The amount of access Dawidoff had to the team, sitting in on meetings and clocking in almost as much as the actual coaching staff, really enriches the book and separates it from the many similar "A Season With..." books out there. Collision Low Crossers truly captures what it is like to work on an NFL coaching staff and the tremendous emotional and time investments staff make in their careers.

You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets About Pro Football's Most Outrageous Team by Rob Huizenga 
This is a tough one to classify, but I'll stick it here because creating a "Memoirs by Football Doctors for the Raiders" category seems somewhat limiting. Huizenga has apparently now made a nice career for himself as a doctor on The Biggest Loser, but in the 80's he served as the team physician for the Raiders. He found that there was widespread drug, alcohol, and steroid abuse among the players and that the franchise wasn't the most organized establishment in the world. You're Okay is basically a memoir/expose of Huizenga's experiences working for the Raiders from draft preparation to treating players during games. It is a breezy read clearly geared towards the general sports fan, with medical terminology kept to minimum. The book is peppered with ridiculous anecdotes (including further insight into the unorthodox way Al Davis ran things and a particularly graphic description of Matt Millen's questionable parenting skills), but it's not a hatchet job. Yes, Huizenga has some gripes with his past-employer and how the league deals with injuries, but his beefs seem justified and in some cases prescient. You're Okay, shines a light on a vital yet underappreciated element of an NFL team and gets bonus points for being one of the more original picks on this list.

The Business of Football 
Jay Berwanger, a football star from the University of Chicago and the winner of the first Heisman Trophy, was also the first player selected in the inaugural NFL draft in 1936. Berwanger ultimately opted for a career in sportswriting, which at the time was more remunerative. 80 years later, payscales for both occupations have changed dramatically. I can't recommend any good books on why writers currently earn peanuts, but here are some of my favorite works on the big business of football.

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict
Penned by an investigative reporter, The System is a revealing look at big-time college football. Some of these findings will likely be old hat to fans of the game, (coaching politics, facilities arms races, questionable recruiting practices), but Benedict offers a remarkable level of depth and detail and at least some of The System should surprise most readers. He is also able to get some key figures to open up to him and speak frankly about current issues facing the game. The book provides an excellent overview of the current media-institutional-NCAA complex and some of its less savory practices.

The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America by Gregg Easterbrook
Easterbrook has written the outstanding Tuesday Morning Quarterback column since 2001 (it is coming back in 2017 after a temporary hiatus in 2016) where he riffs on gridiron affairs as well as an eclectic bunch of other topics that are only sometimes football-related. King of Sports is a bit of a downer in that it highlights many of the negative impacts football is having on society: public funding for stadiums, concussions, and the poor treatment of retired NFL-ers, among others. These chapters are all thoughtfully-written and Easterbrook makes some compelling points, and Easterbrook is evenhanded with his analysis. Easterbrook also spends a year with the Virginia Tech Hokies football team and holds the school up as an example of an institution doing things the right way. While Benedict's The System also looked at the problems football creates, Easterbrook outlines many similar issues but also prescribes potential solutions. Easterbrook is a real fan of the sport interested and invested in its future success, and hopefully the ideas posed in The King of Sports get into the hands and heads of major decision-makers in the sport.

SOC 350: The Sociology of Football

If I was to teach a class about the culture of football and its supporters here is what I'd include on my syllabus.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania by Warren St. John*
Remember that sensible statement I made earlier about football not being the most important thing in the world? I think Alabama Crimson Tide fans are another group that might disagree with that idea. In Rammer Jammer, St. John, an Alabama native who was then a reporter for The New York Times, returns to his home state to follow the Crimson Tide for a season as a fan. St. John joins the throng of Alabama supporters who travel via RV to all of the team's football games. Rammer Jammer is basically an anthropological study of the especially passionate Alabama fans and aims to discover how a college football team can engender such strong emotions from grown adults. St. John is able to write with a sense of detachment but also compassion and empathy for his subjects and he clearly respects them. Consistently thoughtful and occasionally hilarious, Rammer Jammer is my favorite examination of why and how football teams can generate such passion among its fans.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis*
The Blind Side showcases 2 of Lewis' biggest strengths as a writer: his ability to adeptly juggle multiple threads in a coherent and cohesive way and shine a spotlight on truly fascinating people and ideas. You're probably already somewhat familiar with Michael Oher's story at this point, but if you've never read The Blind Side you should seek it out. In addition to covering Oher's byzantine and legitimately unbelievable path to the NFL, Lewis touches upon the evolution of the offensive line in the NFL, the nature of big-school football recruiting, and the life of a student-athlete at a major school. Moneyball had a much larger impact, but I think The Blind Side is Lewis' best effort based solely on the reading experience (the recently-released Undoing Project is also up there).

Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez
Based on the title you may think that Newton's Football exclusively deals with the physics of football (there actually is already a book about that, and it's an okay read but can be a bit dry in parts), but it actually draws from principles from a wide range of the natural and social sciences. There are passages explaining how Prospect Theory accounts for coaches' risk-averse natures and what Schrodinger's cat teaches us about the West Coast Offense. St. John is a journalist and Ramirez is a "science evangelist" with a Ph.D. from Stanford, and everything from why woodpeckers don't get concussions to the game theory of playcalling is described cogently and in layman-friendly terms. This is another questionable fit categorically but it does draw heavily from the social sciences and I don't think it's the end of the world if my theoretical sociology students get some grounding in the harder sciences that will make them (just slightly) more employable after graduation.

Trashy Player/Coach Memoirs
What kind of low-rent, disreputable blogging establishment do you think I'm running here? These books have no business appearing anywhere on this list. That said, Rex Ryan's book, despite being poorly-written and irrationally pro-Mark Sanchez, it actually kinda entertaining.

My 5 Favorite Football Books
1. Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden
2. Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff
3. Paper Lion by George Plimpton
4. Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
5. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer by Warren St. John

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Advance Book Review: One Nation Under Baseball by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Release Date: April 1, 2017

Sports are seen by many people as escape from the real-world and any social and political issues that might exist therein. And while a day at the ballpark can be an immersive experience, the game is shaped by (and occasionally shapes) societal forces. Perhaps no decade demonstrates the particular connection between baseball and American history better than the 1960's, which was a transformational time for both sectors. In One Nation Under Baseball, John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro present a readable and insightful look at this intersection.

The notion that "sports are divorced from politics" is a bit unbelievable in this day and age (and the same largely held true 60 years ago). Rather than beat down on this strawman, Florio and Shapiro chronicle the political and cultural forces that shaped baseball during the 60's, taking the connection as a given and looking instead at how these forces impacted the game. One Nation Under Baseball touches on the major subjects of the period, including integration and civil rights, the elimination of the reserve clause and embiggening of the player's union, and the Vietnam War and the rise of the counter-culture. Each movement is placed in its proper historical context, though sometimes I felt the authors went into too much detail describing some basic information about events such as the March on Washington and suburbanization of America. The reader is likely already pretty familiar with those events and the authors didn't tread upon any new territory. The book does shine in linking baseball to these shifts, such as Hank Aaron's account of listening to restaurant workers smashing the dinnerware he just had eaten on because none of the restaurant's patrons wanted to eat off the plate of a black person.

The book reads like a documentary film (which isn't surprising given that co-author Shapiro has worked on a handful of them), frequently relying on extended passages of quotes from interviews as well as primary source materials. Everything on baseball is well-researched and the book is greatly enriched by drawing from these sources.

One Nation Under Baseball especially shines when discussing the evolution of baseball media. The 1960's marked a transitional time for newspaper writers. Impacted tremendously by the rise of television and an extended newspaper strike in New York, a new generation of writers called  "chipmunks" realized that they needed to shift their approach. Now that fans could figure out who won through watching the news, these new scribes (including George Vecsey of The New York Times and Larry Merchant of The Philadelphia Daily News) focused instead on more long-form articles that provided details on the players' personalities and offered deeper analysis. Also benefiting from primarily writing for afternoon papers with later deadlines, these writers really leveraged their access to players and managers and presented a unique perspective that other mediums couldn't match at the time. The decade also saw the first real efforts of some players to pull back the curtain of big-league life and expose the life of a player, warts and all (but especially the warts) to the general public. This reached a fever pitch(er) with the publication of Jim Bouton's diary of his 1969 season, Ball Four, with its tales of beaver-hunting, drinking, and other sordid affairs (at least to his early-70's audience that hadn't yet been desensitized to athletic indiscretions through exposure to countless incriminating athletic Instagram selfies). The old-guard sportswriters of Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon adhered to a code that generally protected players from such scrutiny, and the 1960's marked the start of a movement of player exposure that would only get more and more intimate (see previous parenthetical statement about incriminating Instagram selfies) as time went on.

Overall, One Nation Under Baseball was a quality read that is worth seeking out for anyone fitting into the Venn diagram intersection of being interested in baseball and history. This is the second baseball-related book I've read from University of Nebraska Press this year and both were considerably entertaining and light reads. Definitely seek this out if the premise sounds intriguing to you.

7 / 10 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Advance Book Review: Macho Row by William Kashatus

Release Date: March 1, 2017

The increased democratization of publishing and the rise of long-tail, niche content have likely lowered the bar for what constitutes a team/season worth memorializing in a book. Thankfully, the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, a ragtag assemblage of castoffs from other teams that went from last place to first and the World Series, make for good reading. William Kashatus' new book on the subject, Macho Row, is a light and enjoyable volume on one of the quirkier MLB teams of recent memory. 

Macho Row is structured like most "single-season-retrospective" books, with a particular focus on the colorful characters employed by the Phillies in 1993. Kashatus devotes a good bit of his attention on the denizens "Macho Row," an especially-raucous section of the clubhouse where stars Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Pete Incavlia, and Dave Hollins resided. The book delves into the backstories of each member and these extended profiles were the highlight of the book for me. Dykstra, who was bursting at the seams with equal parts passion, hubris, and recklessness and the deceptively-clever Kruk were particularly compelling to read about. Kashatus got to interview many major players for the book and these interviews helped further enrich the sketches of each player. Macho Row doesn't actually get to the start of the season until about a third through the book, with extended passages on about half of Macho Row as well as some background on the Phillies and how their fortunes took a pretty severe dip after winning the World Series in 1980 and the NL East in 1983.   

There are a few more biographical digressions peppered in the rest of the book but once the account of the season starts the book can get a bit monotonous. Kashatus seems to give brief summaries of each series over the season with a few basic statistics and noting the top performers. While most readers likely do not remember the game-by-game fate of the Phillies in 1993 it still doesn't make for the most gripping prose and occasionally feels like reading a massive volume of Associated Press game recaps (a frequent gripe I have with this type of book in general). This is further exacerbated by the fact that the Phils were largely cruising through their 1993 campaign, beginning every month of the season in first place. Besides a September slump that briefly injected a bit of suspense into the NL East title race, there wasn't a ton of drama. The fact that a rag-tag team of castoffs that finished in last place the previous year won their division the following season was remarkable, but the way they did so was rather humdrum (which makes their dominance even more remarkable, but not always the most captivating reading material when recounted). Kashatus' occasional asides on baseball's "code" also aren't going to be tremendously illuminating for a reader who is a big enough baseball fan to pick up a book about the Phillies' 1993 campaign. Furthermore, such an emphasis doesn't make a ton of sense given that several major Phillies such as Curt Schilling and Lenny Dykstra blatantly broke key components of the code during the season and over the course of their careers. 

Those issues aside, the overall reading experience is a pleasant one and I'm ultimately glad I read Macho Row. Kashatus, a historian and college professor who has previously written books on American and baseball history, writes well and does an excellent job linking the trends of the 1993 season with what came before it and what followed, such as how the Phillies served as the inspiration for Billy Beane's Moneyball philosophy. Macho Row is a good read that will help pass the time until Opening Day. I don't think it quite has the "crossover" appeal to be worth being read by non-Phillies fans as if you're a big baseball fan you probably already are familiar with these players' basic backgrounds and careers but Phillies fans should get a lot out of it and enjoy revisiting one of the team's better seasons with some additional insight and interviews from the squad. 

6.5  / 10

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Book Review: The Best American Magazine Writing of 2016

If you're the kind of person who demonstrates an iota of interest in The Best American Magazine Writing 2016, this year has probably been a bit rough for you. A lot of famous people you probably liked died, a sovereignty left an occasionally bumbling but ultimately good-intentioned continental trading bloc that you want to stay together, and the American presidential election likely didn't turn out the way you preferred. I'd definitely understand if you wanted nothing more to do with the seventeenth year of the second millennium and any magazine articles written during the period. Thankfully, the series adheres to the "we're just going to inflate the year by 1" Madden-style naming system that confuses grandmas everywhere and these pieces were all published in the relatively halcyon days of 2015. Despite this, the collection tackles some heady and depressing subjects. There are articles about rape, ebola, immigrants getting treated like garbage, devastating earthquakes, and the book can feel unceasingly bleak when it strings together a series of these in a row. Now these are all important topics worthy of plenty of ink and attention, but I feel like they could have been ordered in a way that was a little less wrenching for the reader in the book, and some didn't really seem to do much to advance the discourse on their issues. As is generally the case with these collections, there are a few strong essays surrounded by less captivating fare, but ultimately the standout essays are just enough to justify the price of admission.

The book compiles the best magazine articles written in 2015 as decided by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It is organized by category and includes the top single-topic, feature, and reporting articles as well as the best essays and commentaries. This structure can make the feature and reporting section a bit of an emotionally-draining slog and it would have been nice to intersperse some of the other articles with a smidgen more levity in between them. The major highlight for me were Kathryn Schulz's The Really Big One from The New Yorker which lucidly explains the prospect of an absolutely devastating earthquake hitting the western United States and is a shining example of describing distilling complex scientific and geological concepts into digestible prose that even a harebrained book-reviewing MBA student can understand. I also absolutely loved Barrett Brown's correspondences from prison for The Intercept. Brown is apparently a government transparency rabble-rouser who is down with Wikileaks and was sentenced to 5 years in prison for threatening an FBI officer and some other offenses associated with an FBI investigation into an email leak. The articles riff on a wide variety of topics, from reviewing Jonathan Franzen's Purity to proudly retelling instances of him raising rabble in prison. Brown is wickedly clever and writes with absurd levels of snark and contempt for his current position, while also fully aware of how ridiculous it is that he is surrounded by hardened criminals praying in jury-rigged shrines so that they could be blessed with being served potato wedges for lunch rather than potato chips. I could see some readers finding Brown to be grating, but I really enjoyed the 3 articles by him included in the book. Finding out about articles like these are why I always try to pick up these volumes each year.

There were a few articles that didn't really capture my interest at all and seemed to drag on for a while. Most notable was Paul Ford's What is Code, which did a decent job at arguing why code is important but a far worse at being entertaining and readable. A few of the other articles, such as Meaghan Winter's reporting on abortion clinics touched upon important subjects but didn't convey much new information to anyone reasonably knowledgeable on the topic. Still, the overall reading experience was pleasant and I give the selection panel credit for culling from so many different sources, from Cosmopolitan and Vice to The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. I recommend you pick this up if you've enjoyed the past volumes or are just a fan of longform journalism in general.

6 / 10 

Friday, 28 October 2016

Advance Book Review: Super Consumers by Eddie Yoon

Marketers are likely already familiar with the Pareto Principle: roughly 20% of consumers of a product account for 80% of sales. Some may think these high-volume consumers are already doing enough to help the brands they frequently purchase, but in Superconsumers Eddie Yoon illustrates how highly-engaged consumers in a category can be effective drivers of sales growth and valuable consumer insights.

The basic premise of Superconsumers is that there exists a type of "superconsumer" that not only buy certain products in massive quantities but also have a deep passion for the category and a certain brand specifically. While a small subset of the overall consumer base for most brands (about 10% according to Yoon), superconsumers can account for up to 70% of sales. They are intensely loyal to the brands, use them in many different contexts, and have the potential to purchase even more of the brand in the future.

Superconsumers begins with several case studies highlighting how companies leveraged superconsumers to solve their business problems and then concludes with chapters on how readers can apply these principles to their own companies. Brands reached out to these consumers for insights to help understand why they are such ardent fans of their products and would often apply these learnings to attempt to move consumers at the precipice of superconsumer-ism status to surpass that threshold. The cases showcase a decent amount of variety, from CPG to dolls, though they are short and a bit shallow when it comes to analysis. A few definitely could have benefited from a little extra material, especially a compelling case about a private label grocery brand trying to compete with major brands and position themselves as a premium product. Yoon then goes into some more practical chapters about how marketers can go about taking advantage of superconsumers at their own companies.

Yoon is a principal at The Cambridge Group, a brand consulting firm that recently became a subsidiary of Nielsen. While this partnership with the market research company allows Yoon to pull from a plethora of proprietary consumer data for his book, sometimes Superconsumers reads like an advertisement of Nielsen's services and gets a bit sales-y. That said, the book still has an interesting premise, and while I'm not totally convinced that a superconsumer-based strategy can succeed outside of CPG (the CPG cases and examples Yoon draws upon are way stronger than his other material) the concepts make for nice food-for-thought for marketers working in the category.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Best Books on Hip-Hop

A lot of people listen to hip-hop music. Not a lot of people read books about the genre. This is understandable. Music is an auditory medium that is difficult to translate into the written word, streaming "99 Problems" on Spotify is a lot less of a time investment than reading Decoded, and it's much harder to follow and learn about new and interesting hip-hop books than hip-hop records. 

I can't do anything about those first two issues, but can help a little bit with the latter. I've slogged through my fair share of hip-hop books, and while a good portion of them were complete dreck, some were actually rewarding. This list will highlight the hip-hop books worth the time of any fan of the genre. 

The list is ordered by broad theme (e.g. biographies/memoirs, analyses of rapping and production, etc.). Books denoted with a star (*) are especially recommended. In the unlikely event that you care about my all-time personal favorites (though reading through this list will likely dissuade you from that position) I list my top 10 hip-hop books at the end. 

I include basic (i.e. non-affiliate) Amazon links in case you want to learn more about a specific title, there is no kickback for me or anything. I hope you find something you like, but could care less by how you obtain such books. 

The Art of the Craft: On Rapping and Producing

These selections will provide readers with a stronger understanding of and greater appreciation for rappers and producers by delving into the complexities and craftsmanship of their work. 

There is a lot to take into account when it comes to analyzing rappers. Kool Moe Dee's rapper report card was mainly just an exercise in ego elevation (it's doubtful that anyone besides Kool Moe Dee can explain why he warrants an A+ while Rakim gets an A and Public Enemy somehow only earns a B) but the one/only thing he did get right was scoring on a ton of different categories. There is simply a lot to unpack when it comes to studying rappers. 

And who better to unpack that material than the rappers themselves? This is the basic premise of Paul Edwards' two outstanding "How to Rap" books. They feature a broad variety of emcees (everyone from Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane to Aesop Rock and E-40) offering insights and advice into their work. The content of "How to Rap" runs the gamut from rhyme schemes to vocal delivery to where to write and everything in between. Edwards writes quick introductions to each section and then sprinkles in some additional examples and context but he mainly lets the artists speak for themselves. Everything is well-organized and Edwards does an excellent job weaving in quotes so that they often build off of each other. Works like these are obviously contingent on the participants being open and eloquent, and most of the rappers interviewed, especially Murs and Evidence, had some legitimately interesting stuff to say. 

How to Rap 2 follows the same interview-heavy formula but with a specific focus on flow and delivery. Edwards takes a bit more active role, including a bunch of "flow diagrams" that help break down rappers' verses and some illuminating examples, such as the complex manner in which Nas linked rhyme schemes on "NY State of Mind." The interview list is just as impressive and interesting as the first book in the series. While the subject matter is far more limited than the first installment, there is more than enough meat to hold the reader's interest and the book goes into much greater depth on its topics. 

Again, don't be dissuaded by the instructional nature of the titles. There are no rapping exercises or drills in either book and as long as you are a fan of the genre you will get a lot out of reading them. 

You'll probably notice that there aren't a huge number of books on this list with an academia bent. In generally I find them to be dry and I also think that sometimes ivory tower denizens can read way too much into the rather inane. Like I don't think D4L was making any kind of grand political statement with "Laffy Taffy" and the rap group would probably think any eggheads stating otherwise to be incredibly foolish. 

Making Beats, by Baruch professor Joseph Schloss, thankfully avoids the usual pitfalls of academic books of being overly dry and reading too deeply into shallow things. It's definitely the best production-focused book I've read, period. The result of 10 years of research, the book examines a variety of topics around beatmaking, including the history of rap production, sampling ethics and aesthetics, and crate-digging. Schloss gets to sit down with some obscure producers as well as more familiar names like Prince Paul, Steinski, and Jake One, and all of his interviewees make valuable contributions.  

As an academic book it skews more towards informativeness than pure "beach-read" entertainment, but it's still a remarkably readable and enlightening read. You'll learn about some advanced production techniques as well as the unwritten code governing sampling (which includes not sampling "respected" records, eschewing breakbeat compilations, and not sampling too much from one record). Overall, Making Beats is highly recommended to anyone interested in better understanding rap production. 

The basic premise of Book of Rhymes is that hip-hop lyrics (at least the more thoughtfully written verses) qualify as poetry and can be studied and scrutinized like anything by Whitman or Keats. Bradley is a literary scholar and more than capable guide through the advanced poetic techniques employed by rappers. Now I would reckon that many rappers aren't able to articulate or specifically describe concepts like broken or apocopated rhymes but that's just because they probably aren't familiar with arcane terminology. It just sounds and flows well to them and was still the result of deliberate thought and is worthy of scholarly scrutinizing. Bradley covers the major elements of hip-hop lyrics, including storytelling, rhythm, and rhyme. Written by a poetry expert, Book of Rhymes especially shines in those latter two sections, filled with insightful examples and detailed rhyme and flow diagrams. While penned by an academic, it is an easy read geared towards a mainstream, albeit hip-hop leaning, audience and Bradley does a tremendous job distilling high-level poetic techniques into layman-friendly explanations. 

One could contest that the "hip-hop isn't really poetry and the lyrics are simple and dumb" argument is a bit of a straw man at this point and feel that Bradley is essentially preaching to the choir. It's a valid claim, but I enjoyed Book of Rhymes because it broke down the lyrics of some of my favorite rappers (Pharoahe Monch, Nas and many, many, others) and provided additional tools to understand and appreciate hip-hop lyricism. 

I Am Hip Hop attempts to answer "What is Hip-Hop" through over twenty interviews with a diverse slice of the hip-hop community. I don't think Rausch really accomplishes this goal beyond showcasing that hip-hop is complicated and hard to define, which you probably were well aware of already. However, he does share candid and sometimes profound discussions with some major hip-hop luminaries. The participant list ranges from icons (Chuck D, Eric B) to more obscure members of the old school (Dres, Chip Fu), and more contemporary underground artists (Akrobatik). The interviews all begin with "What does hip-hop mean to you?" but then branch out all over the place, often to some fascinating avenues. You have sections with Big Daddy Kane reflecting on his biggest rap battles and 9th Wonder describing his biggest production influences and the college course he taught on hip-hop. The dialogues cover a nice mix between the culture and the music of hip-hop and you'll learn a decent amount about both topics. Rausch clearly did his homework and is able to ask probing questions and elicit some quality responses from his subjects. Though it doesn't seem like the most popular book, the interview list is outstanding and I Am Hip-Hop is a breezy and compelling read. 

Fat Pockets: The Big Business of Hip-Hop

As stated at the start, a lot of people listen to hip-hop music. The upshot is that hip-hop music has become a lucrative industry. 

When it comes to grasping how hip-hop went from a rhyme-biting pizza delivery guy and his friends complaining about the poor cooking skills of friends' parents (among many other things, "Rapper's Delight" meandered like crazy) to its current status as a global economic juggernaut, you only need one book (which is good because I didn't really like Steve Stoute's Tanning of America):

This is a hefty tome (my copy checks in a 645 pages, and that is without endnotes), but The Big Payback is an authoritative account of hip-hop's ascension to a humongous money-making machine. It traces the genre's roots in the late 1960's through the mid-2000's with the proliferation of hip-hop brand extensions like Rocawear as well as the continuing popularity of the music itself. Charnas chronicles this evolution through profiles of some of its bigger and more colorful characters, such as Sylvia Robinson, Rick Rubin, Lyor Cohen, and Jay-Z. The book never drags despite its length (it helps that figures like Rubin and Robinson are absolutely fascinating human beings who did some crazy things) and reveals some surprising discoveries from behind-the-scenes goings-on. 

Charnas is a hip-hop insider (he was a talent scout for Profile Records and was an early writer for The Source, among other things) and he does a superb job balancing his background as a serious journalist and Pulitzer Fellowship recipient with his obvious hip-hop fanaticism. Charnas clearly put boatloads of effort into The Big Payback and his encyclopedic book succeeds completely.  

Thisisme: Autobigraphies and Memoirs

The celebrity memoir/autobiography is one of the more common literary archetypes. A large amount are vapid near-drivel but there are also usually some gems if you're willing to look hard enough. The same goes for hip-hop versions of such books. 

This was a tough one to categorize because much of Decoded features Jay-Z analyzing his songs. But the important thing is just for the book to be included. I'm not a huge fan of Jay's post-Reasonable Doubt catalog, but you don't have to be to enjoy it. On the off chance you aren't familiar with it, Decoded features him reflecting on his career, hip-hop, politics, and his upbringing with some additional musings on success and how hip-hop has changed. He also breaks down over 35 of his songs throughout, following a Rap Genius (I wouldn't be surprised if this book had a lot of influence on how that site is laid out) format with heavily annotated lyrics. The notations are detailed, numerous, and thoughtful and it's a well put-together book, full of plenty of pictures and many from his childhood and neighborhood. Decoded works both as a frank and captivating autobiography and a breakdown of his lyrics and the stories behind some of his songs. 

Mo' Meta Blues features some general hallmarks of the celebrity memoir. Questlove reminisces on his childhood and being raised by musicians and his early influences, how he met Black Thought and founded the Roots, and how the Roots became so successful. That said, there are also dialogues, emails from the editor, and extended digressions on musical minutiae and the timeline jumps around quite a bit. I usually found these devices as clever changes of pace and never thought that they veered into self-indulgent territory. At its core though, you have a music nerd and hip-hop star giving a detailed and compelling account of his life and geeking out over some of his favorite artists and songs along the way. Questlove is clearly an intelligent guy and his well-written memoir is rewarding even if you aren't incredibly familiar with his work (though you should really start on rectifying that). 

Books Listing Things

Hip-hop fans have always enjoyed ordering things and declaring winners and then arguing about how they ordered things and declared winners. Was Biggie better than Tupac? Who won the Jay-Z vs. Nas feud? What is the best album from 1994? We can debate about how long hip-hop music as we know it will endure, but I'm reasonably confident we'll be arguing about hip-hop music (including when it will ultimately dirtnap, if ever) forever. These next two books feed into the genres love of ordering, arguing, and riffing on random topics and sharing trivia. 

I'm going to spoil the beginning of my top 10 list: this one wins. Ego Trip was a short-lived hip-hop magazine that lasted from 1994 to 1998. I was too young to read it while it was active but I found some scans of old issues a few years ago and it seems like it was spectacular stuff. 

As the title would suggest, Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists is a sizable volume that dispenses arcane and often-fascinating hip-hop tidbits and trivia through a random assortment of lists. You have MC Serch listing his favorite concert venues, 21 Little-Known Facts About Popular Hip-Hop Songs (Freddie Foxx was originally supposed to rap over "Eric B. is President" but didn't show up so Rakim stepped in, Ol' Dirty Bastard ended up on Pras' "Ghetto Superstar" because he stumbled into the wrong studio), "6 Seminal Hip-Hop Albums That Were Panned by Rolling Stone" (they once described People's Instinctive Travels... as "one of the least danceable rap albums ever"), a roster of all the artists on the three covers of Midnight Marauders, 12 Sports Lyrics that Lose (quoth the RZA on "Reunited:" "Talk strange like Bjork / Great hero Jim Thorpe") among a ton of others. Some lists have detailed descriptions and justifications for their orderings, some don't, all are engrossing. 

This is not Buzzfeed for rap fans. The book was published in 1999 and is just some insanely knowledgeable and opinionated writers (along with some special guest list-writers like Kool Keith, Dante Ross, MC Serch, RA the Rugged Man, Debi Mazar, and others) dropping science and some fascinating stories and trivia. 

The book has the added bonus of being an excellent source of music discovery. In addition to all the lists, the authors included their favorite 25 singles and albums from 1979 through 1998. While I quibble with some of their picks (there is no way Hell on Earth by Mobb Deep is the 3rd best album from 1996) I do acknowledge that the lists are a phenomenal resource that serve as a valuable guide for my music collecting. 

The Rap Yearbook looks at the most important rap song from every year from 1979 through 2014, dissecting each selection and also explaining its broader significance. Serrano was a former writer for Grantland and brings the wittiness, smarts, and copious footnotes that one would expect from Bill Simmons' sadly defunct website. Serrano uses this format as a springboard to comment on topics like Puff Daddy's legacy, the best rap love songs, and what Rakim has in common with Michael Jordan. While each chapter stands well enough on its own, the total package presents a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of hip-hop. Catering to the aforementioned fact that hip-hop fans love to argue about everything, Serrano also brings in some of his writer friends to rebut and challenge his picks for each year by arguing for an alternative choice. 

The book is further enhanced by numerous illustrations from Arturo Torres. In addition to "style maps" that highlight the various techniques and themes touched upon in each song, chapters also have other graphs/diagrams and artist portraits. Whether it is imagining the Wu-Tang Clan as blood-drenched kung-fu warriors or a frequency distribution of swear words uttered by N.W.A. on Straight Outta Compton (somehow they only used "goddamn" 3 times over the entire album) the pictures are always outstanding and make the book even more irresistible to hip-hop nerds. 

Classic Material: Books About Seminal Albums

There are few higher compliments for hip-hop albums than "classic." Aficionados will still debate about which classic album is the best, but some albums are just unquestionable high points of the genre. These books explore and shed some more light into those classic albums. 

Did you ever read that article in XXL about the making of Nas' Illmatic? Basically everyone involved with the album (Nas, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, MC Serch, etc.) reviews their memories and shares insider stories about each track. As you might expect, it's rather compelling stuff.  

Does the prospect of reading more articles like that appeal to you? If so (and it really should) Brian Coleman's Check the Technique books are for you. They follow the same oral history-ish format for a handful of old school (primarily late '80s and early '90s) albums. 

Coleman writes 2-3 page introductions for each chapter, outlining each album's significance and drawing heavily from artist interviews talking about the record in general. Each chapter then proceeds with a track-by-track breakdown made up of comments from the artists as well as label execs, producers, and other involved parties. Think of this as Song Exploder for classic old-school hip hop albums. And here let me specify that by "old-school" I'm talking about mainly late '80s through the mid '90s.

The brunt of the work is handled by the artists and thus the quality is contingent on how open and engaging they feel like being. Thankfully, almost all of the contributors follow through with quality insights. I was only really disappointed with Slick Rick's take on The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in the first book as he was stingy with his comments and spent too much time complaining about beats he wasn't credited for  If you're familiar with any of the Roots' absurdly detailed liner notes from their old albums you'll know that Questlove and Black Thought goes above and beyond with their chapter on Do You Want More?!!!??! and Evil Dee explaining his production techniques on Black Moon's Enta Da Stage was another highlight. 

Both books feature an incredible lineup of albums. You have De La Soul on 3 Feet High and Rising, Mobb Deep on The Infamous, Mos Def and Talib Kweli on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Company Flow on Funcrusher Plus, and many others. 

If for some reason you still aren't convinced, read this excerpt featuring DJ Premier reflecting on Gang Starr's Step Into the Arena. 

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books that basically serve as liner notes on steroids. Each volume features a music writer focusing on a classic album with an in-depth exploration of the music as well as some biographical information on the artist. I've read several 33 1/3 hip-hop entries and the Donuts and Endtroducing books were my favorites. 

The Endtroducing book is primarily made up of a series of extended interviews with DJ Shadow. Most of the interviews center around how Shadow got into hip-hop and his initial efforts as a producer working with rappers like Paris. The book is more about DJ Shadow rather than Endtroducing but Wilder does pose some album-specific questions and glean some insights from Shadow on that subject. 

Donuts was a meticulously-crafted LP and Jordan Ferguson does J Dilla's masterful album justice with his book on the album. Ferguson's extensively-researched book reveals plenty of details of Dilla's life and producing philosophy that will likely be new to even the producer's biggest fans. The book also dissects the album and elucidates the complex techniques and flourishes Dilla crammed into the album. 

Miscellaneous Books That Didn't Fit Anywhere Else But Are Still Good Despite Being Hard to Categorize

The section title speaks for itself. 

Given the fact that so many rappers appear to be comic book devotees, it is only natural for there to be a comic series chronicling the history of hip-hop. Piksor is an artist and former Harvey Pekar collaborator who is also a huge hip-hop fan. In Hip-Hop Family Tree Piksor tells the story of the music from the late '70s onward. So far he has made it through 1985 and each of the four volumes released thus far have been exceptional, with stunning artwork and perfect and thorough historical accuracy. The books are fun and breezy reads and this is clearly a result of a labor of love on Piksor's part, as his passion is evident on every remarkably-detailed panel. Piksor is gradually working his way through the genre's timeline and it is worth following this project. The late '80s and early '90s volumes should be especially enjoyable for most readers. 

RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan don't have a flawless musical record (just listen to A Better Tomorrow, or re-read RZA's Jim Thorpe line in the Ego Trip book section earlier in this post) but they have been pretty consistently ambitious. The Wu-Tang Manual is literary proof of this ambition: an authoritative tome on the mythology, members and guiding principles of everyone's favorite kung-fu-influenced rap group from Staten Island with over 5 members. The manual is split into four "books," with books reviewing the members and their lyrical and delivery quirks and innumerable nicknames, exploring primary influences (including sections on chess, capitalism, and martial arts), annotating lyrics Decoded-style (sadly in a somewhat shallower fashion), and RZA conducting a deep dive on his personal philosophies around beatmaking and life in general. It can be a bit messy and not every section is equally entertaining but there is more than enough substance here to greatly please any Wu-Tang enthusiast.

Personal Top 10 Favorite Hip-Hop Books

1. Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists 
2. Check the Technique
3. The Big Payback
4. Check the Technique 2
5. How to Rap
6. The Rap Yearbook
7. Decoded
8. How to Rap 2
9. 33 1/3: J Dilla's Donuts
10. Book of Rymes