Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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Fifty years ago, a champion boxer picked up his son from school, a literary critic was tackled by NFL players, and a famed NASCAR racer tended to his chicken farm. Such was the sidelong view of sports presented by Gay Talese, George Plimpton, and Tom Wolfe. Sports in the 1960s proved a rich arena for writers looking to flex their literary muscle, and Talese and Wolfe tried out unconventional sports writing while still kicking off their careers. You won’t find much reference here to the sweeping political developments that tend to dominate our narratives of 1964. Instead, you’ll get some sense for the texture of the time.
“The Loser” (Gay Talese, Esquire, March 1964)
It’s a coach’s cliché that you learn more from losing than from winning. It’s rare, however, for a writer to pay such close attention to the loser, and for the loser to speak as candidly as Floyd Patterson about defeat. Before he wrote classic pieces about a 51-year-old Joe DiMaggio and a cold-stricken Frank Sinatra, Talese became a chronicler of fallen heroes with pieces like this one.
“Paper Lion” Excerpt (George Plimpton, Sports Illustrated, September 1964)
The nonfiction narrator is often a sort of safari guide, trudging ahead through new terrain, pointing out the incredible and unfamiliar creatures of the bush. In this two-part story for Sports Illustrated, however, our narrator is instead a relatively scrawny nervous writer, and the only Lions to be seen are dressed in uniforms and helmets. For three weeks, Plimpton took up the life of a professional football player, and topped it off with a remarkably awful performance in a pre-season scrimmage. His narrative of failure in the first-person, however, proves more illuminating than most narratives of victory in the third.
“The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” (Tom Wolfe, Esquire, Spring 1964)
Junior Johnson was one of the fastest drivers in the world, but he had a nasty habit of causing traffic jams. That was what happened whenever 17,000 eager fans would race to the stadium to see him. Wolfe unsticks himself from the gridlock and takes us careening through the up-and-coming world of stock-car racing. He focuses less on the celebrity Junior Johnson than on celebrity itself—that ethereal myth-making gossip-grabbing quality that can stop a highway dead in its tracks. Fittingly enough, this was one of the stories that gave Wolfe a celebrity of his own.