What We Mean When We Say Earned: On ‘Winesburg, Ohio,’ Fact-Based Beatings, and the Fight Against Toxic Masculinity
By Dan Bjork
I thought I found my hook for Winesburg, Ohio early on, in the “Mother” chapter, soon after we spent the previous pages with Whig Biddlebaum, formerly the Pennsylvania school teacher Adolph Myers, falsely accused of being improper with his students, now in hiding in the town of his aunt. The trauma of his former life has manifested itself in his hands — his hands were what the townsfolk in Pennsylvania kept referencing as they beat him — and he keeps them hidden at all times, except where his story peaks, while giving an inspirational speech to George Willard in which he touches the youth’s head and then shoulders and then runs to his house, still in mid-sentence. The next chapter shifts to the perspective of George Willard’s mother, who sees “a secret something in him which is striving to grow,” and is considering killing her husband after she hears him telling her son it’s time to wake up and make something of himself.
I have a soft-spot for this clockwork narrative structure, especially when used to approach the nature of a group of people, partly because one of my earliest reading memories is of a series about a high school football team, which, on a book-by-book basis, functioned the same way. (Which I could’ve sworn was called Blitz. But that doesn’t exist on the Internet; no YA series from the ’80s about a high school football team does.) Each book focused on a different member of the team — the running back, the wide receiver, a defensive lineman — and just like here, the characters you’ve met in previous POVs drift into others as ancillary characters. Reading this so young, it formed my romantic expectations of the high school experience, similar to the way other ’80s babies from back home talk with longing about Saved by the Bell. I was eager to spend this week’s entry probing this strain of sentimentality inside me — I’ve almost come to blows defending the clockwork structure of the middle section of The Savage Detectives — it was the perfect way to tie this week’s book to football in a way that was germane to both.
By Ryan Henry Joe
I took a course called “The Writer as Teacher” while enrolled in Columbia University’s writing program. (Though at the time, I missed its underlying message: Thanks for the $50,000 tuition, here’s your job prospect.)
I thought about that class as I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — a book that seems ubiquitous in high school or college classrooms. I apparently missed the syllabi that assigned it, so kudos to an anti-NFL book club for picking up the slack.
Read today, Winesburg, Ohio feels like a primordial short story collection. Maybe it’s unfair to hold a book published in 1919 against modern standards, but then again I have no problem holding the San Francisco 49ers to the standards they established in the 1980s.
Each story has a very basic structure. A noisy narrator — often and suddenly addressing the audience directly — contextualizes an upcoming situation and the character involved. That character then goes on “an adventure” — Anderson’s shorthand for “shit goes down.”
This week, Football Book Club will be reading Brain Fever by Kimiko Hahn and talking about Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — our selection from last week. So be sure to crack open your copy of Brain Fever and check in with FBC for all our thoughts on Winesburg, Ohio and life without the NFL.
Brain Fever is the 10th book of poetry from Hahn, who won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry and an American Book Award in 2008 and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010. For more information on Hahn, check out these pieces from BOMB and the Kenyon Review.
Rob nominated this title for Football Book Club because: “Kimiko Hahn is a dear friend, and I’m a fan of her previous book Toxic Flora — The New York Times did a great article about her use of their Science Times section for the book. I’m eager to see where she goes in her newest collection, and I hope the way she weaves science into lyric takes on age-old subjects makes her appealing to a FBC.”
By Yona Harvey
When I was invited to participate in this book club, I wasn’t convinced I’d have much to contribute. I didn’t exactly grow up watching sports. I grew up watching the people I loved watch sports. At my grandparents’ house, for instance, I floated in and out of the family room while my father, Uncle Mike, and grandfather leaned over the edges of their chairs and talked back to the television, or waved their hands at one another in disagreement about a play. They were having their time together.
Years later, my time came, too. I got married and started raising two children in Pittsburgh. Gradually, I learned the Steelers’ roster, the names of the defensive coordinators, and what to expect from local commentators. I got geeked about Bill Cowher’s post-game interviews and, later, Mike Tomlin’s. Like Evan, the doctor Steve Almond interviewed in the “Their Sons Grow Suicidally Beautiful” chapter, I got hooked on football through a kind of collective identity. With each game, I felt like less of a stranger in Pittsburgh. I had a team! My family and I wore NFL jerseys for the first time. Even our dog had a jersey. Watching the Steelers was the one family ritual everyone agreed on — especially as the kids grew older and drifted toward their teen years. We were having our time together.
And now I was being asked to stop watching? I wasn’t ready to let go. I wanted to keep my NFL fantasy going. Before the book club, though, would I have even acknowledged upholding a fantasy?
By Rob Casper
Adam, Dan, and Ryan — reading your posts makes me realize, first and foremost, that I am not much of a Packers fan. Or rather, I don’t have much of a problem watching the team I grew up worshipping…unless they start to win. The losses are easy, but when the wins start adding up everything changes. Like last fall, for instance, after the first few games (and after our QB’s sage advice) — and quite possibly this fall too. Then all the old feelings start to kick in: hope, excitement, a seductive sense of urgency.
But that’s not what I want to talk about, after reading Against Football. I felt like nobody could read such a book and avoid deciding one way or another whom they wanted to be in relation to the sport. It reminded me of this scene from The Sopranos. We too cannot say we haven’t been told.
By Adam Boretz
Were I making a list of things I’d have absolutely no problem missing out on — a head wound, the music of Slipknot, gonorrhea, a close personal friendship with Anthony Weiner — Bears’ pre-season football would land pretty close to the top.
Let’s be honest: Pre-season football is all but meaningless, features a sad array of fringe players, and provides an unreliable barometer of a team’s prospects once the games actually count for something. I know this to be true because in the last four weeks Chicago lost just one game and Jay Cutler — when he wasn’t moodily smoking cigarettes behind Halas Hall — didn’t commit a single turnover. I challenge anyone to make a case that those numbers are remotely indicative of what’s going to happen next week against Green Bay.
As I wasn’t missing much and because I’ve always been a fan of manifestos — The SCUM Manifesto, The Communist Manifesto — it required zero effort for me to forgo the Bears’ pre-season in its entirety for Steve Almond’s Against Football.
The book actually sat on my shelf for months before I could bring myself to read it. Every so often I’d walk past it, pick it up, return it to the shelf, and give it a sad look — because I pretty much knew reading Against Football was going to kill my relationship with the NFL.
Published in 1919, this story story cycle — which launched Anderson’s career and follows the life of protagonist George Willard in the titular small town — is ranked #24 on Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century.
Adam nominated this title for Football Book Club because: “At some point I was revising some short stories and my professor said me, ‘Have you read Winesburg, Ohio? You really have to read Winesburg, Ohio.’ Since then, I have forgotten which stories I was revising, which professor suggested the book, and why he or she thought it was so vital I read it. I did, however, purchase a copy of the book. So, it’s probably about time — plus, my wife raves about the story ‘Hands.'”
Building Something: On Childhood Memories, ‘Against Football,’ the New York Jets, and My Future Kids
By Dan Bjork
When I signed up for this, I didn’t think my chances of making it were all that good. I thought, best case scenario: I’d schedule my Sunday workout for Jets’ kick-off and most of the time they’d be well on their way to losing by the time I finished — it’d be easy enough to skip those games — that and I’d obviously fold and watch both Patriots games and almost certainly develop (yet another) unhealthy relationship with Madden. I said yes because the Jets are woeful enough for this workout scheme to be successful, because I’m so worn out from the clown car we’ve become under Woody Johnson, so much so that a huge part of me wishes it were socially acceptable to simply follow Rex to Buffalo. I said yes because Addy asked and he’s my ride-or-die homie — he gave me a place to live when I was at my lowest and homeless, twice — and I would run through a brick wall for that dude. I could easily try and not watch the Jets for season. But a tiny wrinkle I found early on in Against Football quickly became this rabbit-hole inside which I found a real sense of purchase. I’m going to make it. I’m not going to watch football this year, I’m damn near certain.
There’s nothing really new in this book, not if you’ve been paying attention. Rather, it’s a full-bore, fire-hose barrage of it, years of whispers and fleeting, single reports — usually squeezed between highlights and commercials — here concentrated and backed up with the sort of breadth of evidence short-form news reports do not provide. It’s a chapter-by-chapter survey of everything that’s toxic about football (the majority of which are cataloged on our Breaking Up Is Hard to Do page). But it is all presented by one of us, by a genuine football fan, by a human being and an active well of empathy struggling his way through digesting this all; meaning we get Steve Almond’s reaction to each toxicity along the way, along with several instances of the slippery logic employed by someone who’s found solace in something he knows he should be ashamed of. And that had its effect, to be sure. It’d be near impossible to engage the book with any sort of earnestness and not walk away knowing that the game in its current state is killing its players, and that the NFL’s insistence on ever-increasing profitability actively makes this worse, and, most of all, that by even passively consuming this, you are indeed part of the problem.
I Fought the NFL and the NFL Won: On ‘Against Football,’ Illegal Streams, and San Francisco’s Fallen Camelot
By Ryan Henry Joe
Three years ago, with then-San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers landing the ball everywhere but between the uprights, I’d scurry into my bedroom and hide under a blanket whenever he trotted onto the gridiron for a high-stakes field goal attempt.
An outburst of cheering — provided it was a home game — meant success.
In my more fragile moments, however, I’d mute the television and refresh Twitter for game updates. I don’t enjoy 49ers games so much as I survive them, and mediating particularly tense situations through a mobile app kept me more or less on an even keel.
I got used to following live feeds of the game because, for a while — living in New York City and watching TV via high-def antenna — it was difficult to see 49ers games at all. Only recently did the team start performing well enough to warrant nationally-broadcast games.
Still, I needed my fix. I never enjoyed watching football with a bunch of strangers, so I avoided sports bars. I soon discovered FirstRowSports, a site collecting low-res, illegal, live streams of NFL games — though I had to install a sketchy-looking driver to use its video player, a fee I gladly paid.
Eventually, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized the site’s domain, which now routes visitors to this ominous anti-piracy PSA. Since then, FirstRowSports has re-launched, presumably it is hosted in a country unlikely to be raided by the U.S. or its allies.
I justify my decision to circumvent NFL-approved broadcasts by saying it’s for moral reasons, similar to the issues Steve Almond articulates in Against Football.
I refuse to support a business that presents itself as a purveyor of wholesome, All-American family fun, but that is — even overlooking the concussion issue — greedy and cynical. The NFL cares about breast cancer only inasmuch as the disease will increase female viewers. Salute the troops? Sure, for a price.
“The point of Against Football is not just that the game fosters a tolerance for greed and violence and misogyny and militarism. The real intention is to investigate why fans like me, who know all this, still become obsessed, why we give so much of our head and hearts to this corrupt game.”
Adam nominated this book for Football Book Club because: “I’m not sure there’s another book that would be as perfect a kickoff to this project as Against Football. Also, who doesn’t enjoy a good manifesto?”