A List of my Favorite Novels (2021 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists; hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 16
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2020 (Piranesi)

Tier 5

75. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
74. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
73. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
72. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
71. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
70. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
69. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
68. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
67. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
66. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
65. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
64. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
63. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
62. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
61. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
60. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
59. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4

58. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
57. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
56. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
49. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

48. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
47. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
46. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
45. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
44. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
43. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
42. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
41. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
40. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
39. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
38. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

What is Making Me Happy: “Golden Child”

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, “Golden Child”

Sometimes I just get a song or album stuck in my head. Recently, that song has been “Golden Child.”

To back up a little bit, I discovered The Honeycutters, an Asheville-based Americana band, on Spotify a few years ago when their songs started to appear on my algorithmically-derived playlists. Their 2015 album Me Oh My remains one of my favorites of recent years, particularly with the titular track, and the two songs “Jukebox” and “Lucky.” I just adore the voice of Amanda Anne Platt, who also writes their songs—since 2017, the band has officially (and deservedly) been Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters—and her lyrics swing between a restrained happiness and utter devastation in a way that I find very affecting.

This week I found myself listening to another of their albums, 2016’s On the Ropes, and was once again particularly moved by the song “Golden Child.” This is a sad, wistful tune about heartache that I find utterly devastating even as it is not particularly sad. It is a song of isolation, but one that makes peace with life.

Not hard to talk to, is she?
Yeah, she makes it easy
she looks like what you wanna hear
I used to need that from you
to make me feel like something special
standing back stage with a guitar and a beer

I also love how On the Ropes follows “Golden Child” with the upbeat ditty “The Handbook” about courtship.

In short, while I am a fan of basically everything that Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters have put out, “Golden Child” has particularly been making me happy this week.

I've been a golden child
I've been a lonely country mile
and an am gospel choir crackling through the wires
don't you touch that dial

What is Making Me Happy: Yoga

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: yoga

I have never been particularly flexible. In the year since the pandemic started, I’ve noticed that my lack of flexibility has gotten worse in my hips and back, probably because the changes have meant more time sitting with poor posture in an office chair overdue for replacement. About a month ago, I decided to do something about this lack of flexibility.

…and now I have a daily yoga habit.

I started with short videos from the Yoga with Adriene channel and gradually expanded the practice to longer, more complex routines. One month into my practice, I have already begun to notice a difference. As great as this benefit is, though, that is only the most obvious reason that yoga is making me happy.

Each of the past several years I have resolved to start a mindfulness practice using the Headspace app. These are okay, and the gamification of the regular habit works for me—there is a reason that I have a 600+ day streak on DuoLingo—but I found the soothing voices mildly annoying and while I do pretty well with just silent meditation, I also have been unable to find the discipline to regularly make time to look for that calm.

Yoga, by contrast, works for me. I often find movement more calming than stillness because it gives me a focus and incorporating yoga into my daily exercise routine means that I actually do it. In addition, the routines that Adriene Mishler puts out emphasize conscious breath and finding time for stillness as part of of the regular practice, so I still get to work my way to periods of meditation at the end of most sessions. . The result is a sweet spot between physical exercise, stretching, and mindful meditation, whether I’m settling my mind before starting work or using it to find calm later in the day when I have a dozen things going on.

My 2020: Resolutions

As is now custom, my year-end navel gazing series ends with my resolutions for the new year.

ΔΔΔ

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness, particularly since my schedule last semester got in the way of these healthy routines.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something that I have only really come back to at the end of 2020 in the form of daily yoga.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing. This was a really important habit for me in 2020 and I want to continue into 2021 or even expand it to, gasp, two days off on weekends.
  • I began a daily yoga routine (20+ minutes) at the end of 2020 and will continue that through 2021, as well as taking a daily 10-minute mindfulness/meditation break.
  • Lose ten pounds. I aim to accomplish this both by eating a little less and by gradually increasing my activity levels. I just need to get a new pair of running shoes first.
  • Complete the book manuscript that I’ve been working on based on my dissertation. I wrote this in as a goal in 2020, too, but I have a deadline now and may actually get it done!
  • I completed the two article-length pieces in 2020 even if I didn’t get them out. I want to get both piece out and draft one (1) more, either as a long public-facing piece or an academic article, depending on where it looks like my career is going.
  • Find (1) new academic book to review. This is a repeat from 2020, when I had two book reviews published.
  • Complete the next piece of my research project on bread in ancient Greece. (re-up from 2020)
  • I exceeded my target of reading (12) ancient history or classics books not connected to my research in 2020 even though I fell off dramatically in the second half of the year. I like the practice, so will re-up at at least (12), or one per month even though access might prove as much of an obstacle as time here.
  • I exceeded my goal of 52 other books for 2020 along with all of my diversity markers, but will re-up at the same level:
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages

ΔΔΔ

Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2021, including an annual revision to my list of favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

My 2020: Using My Words

Wait.

Hold up.

It’s December already?

It’s the end of December already?

As in, tomorrow is January 1, 2021?

I don’t believe you.

Time flies when you’re having fun, they say, but the real secret is that time flies when you stay busy. Was 2020 every busy. I got off to a roaring start teaching five different classes at two different institutions while also writing and applying for jobs, and then COVID happened. It took my classes online over a weekend and managed to stay one jump ahead for the rest of the semester, but when I emerged I discovered not only that the sudden contraction of university budgets had axed the jobs I had applied for but also that the places where I had been picking up classes didn’t need my services.

Since there was a pandemic going on and I wasn’t in imminent danger of being cast out on the street, I resolved to give myself a couple weeks to recover and work on writing projects. Pretty soon I had a bead on various other employment: an online class in Australia that ended up falling through, reviewing a manuscript that came with a bit of pay, some freelance editorial work. Then the classes started trickling in: one class for a school I’d previously worked (I ended up not teaching this one), then a community college class, then three courses at a local college. Suddenly I was teaching five classes on three different academic calendars at three institutions. Three of the classes I’d never taught before.

Oh, and I took a six week course on online pedagogy in the middle of the fall semester.

What I’m saying is that I’m still waiting for that part of lockdown where I get bored because I’ve exhausted all of my entertainment options.

My year-end essays each of the past few years have largely echoed each other as I grasped for new words to say the same thing. Increasingly, I wrote about my professional experience—giving in to the gremlin telling me to work harder, my failures on the academic job market, the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with being a very contingent professor—concluding last year that I’ve been experiencing stagnation.

In some ways, 2020 was much the same, only with lower peaks and lower valleys. I was more anxious and more tired than ever, but I am as proud of any of the writing I did this year as anything I have done in the past, inclusive of both the work that came out and the material still working its way toward daylight.

Only in the past few weeks have I started coming to grips with how 2020 was different.

The isolation brought on by the pandemic was more annoying than debilitating at first. I’ve lived too far from most friends and family for regular visits for more than a decade so when restrictions pushed everyone online, it actually brought many loved ones closer to me than they had been for some time. Similarly, I suddenly found myself more able to sleep with neither a commute nor an available gym. (I’m still trying to figure out replacement work outs that work with what I have available, though.) Work took more time, sure, but I find working toward clear goals relaxing, so I could often put my head down and dig in.

Reader, this was neither healthy, nor sustainable.

Our decision to be responsible and stay home for the holidays caused the isolation to crash home anew, balancing whatever physical rest we get by avoiding holiday travel with emotional strain of not seeing family.

Much of my exhaustion can be traced to the usual suspects (work, anxiety, depression), but this year has also brought into relief another source of exhaustion: rage. I spent so much time angry this year, often whipping from one target to another. Any list of triggers would be inadequate, and perhaps the most infuriating part is how few of conditions were actually new. COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

Forget a lockdown, many places in the United States didn’t put in place a mask ordinance. There is a restaurant in Jefferson City, MO, about twenty miles south of me, that only started requiring masks a month ago, and then only from 3–5 PM as special “COVID-safe” hours.

I am numb at the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and millions more could have long-term health complications—maybe now a dreaded pre-existing condition, who knows!—with millions more out of work or with limited income and yet so many people seem to have simply given up anything more than token efforts. Not to let a good crisis go to waste, the profits of billionaires have soared, the families of congresspeople engaged in what seems like blatant insider-trading, and the people in charge of overseeing a pandemic response either treated a deadly disease like a hoax or a PR-stunt. If the stock market doesn’t crash and the carnage is confined to your political opponents, then everything is fine, right? We could feed people and stimulate the economy, but have you considered the deficit? It has been a full year since COVID started and nine months since it started racing through the United States and just today I read reports about doses of the COVID vaccine spoiling because its rollout has been so haphazard that the clinic didn’t have “eligible” recipients.

I can feel the bile rising writing the preceding paragraphs, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing: none of things is going to change with the calendar flipping to 2021. Sure, a Biden administration will help a little given enough time to straighten out the official response and to take the mean edge off of some policies. But setting the goal at normalcy is tantamount to wanting to sweep everything that happened this year under the rug so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.

This is the point I keep coming back to as new year approaches. I have long maintained that teaching is what I can do to help make the world a better place, but my surety of that has been shaken over the past year. Doubts that began pre-COVID given the nature of contingent faculty work have only accelerated once the pandemic hit because it is almost impossible to do the sort of teaching I want to do while everyone involved was also coping with the pandemic. This may entail a career change, but I thought as much last year, too, so who knows.

If all of this sounds bleak, that is because I’ve spent my days recently cycling through rage and resignation. Compared to many people this year, I’m fine. I’m exhausted and little heavier than I’d like to be, but that’s what happens when you lose access to a gym and spend a lot of the year expanding your repertoire of baked goods. I am healthy, as are those closest to me, and I have a roof over my head and food on my plate. But this year has also made clear that we should not take these basic necessities for granted.

I might be ready to leave 2020 behind, but I have no intention of forgetting it anytime soon.

ΔΔΔ

This is the penultimate entry in my end-of-year wrap up series. The rest of the 2020 series includes: Best* Posts, By the Numbers, Lists of Note, and will be followed by resolutions.

Past essays in this series: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

My 2020: Lists of Note


Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. The series kicked off with a collection of the Best* posts, followed by a set of numbers that described my year. Today is a set of seven lists that look backward and one that looks forward.

Five favorite novels I read this year:

Seven favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

Five novels I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2020 (no repeats from last year!):

  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
  • Last Train to Istanbul, Ayse Kulin
  • The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Eight TV shows I was watching this year:

  • The Mandalorian
  • The Sopranos
  • The Vow
  • Schitt’s Creek
  • The Last Dance
  • Briarpatch
  • Narcos
  • High Fidelity

Four movies I saw for the first time that were totally worth the price of admission a streaming platform

  • Fargo (1996)
  • The Breadwinner (2017)
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
  • Porco Rosso (1992)

Three video games I enjoyed getting lost in:

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
  • Final Fantasy VII: Remastered
  • Path of Exile

Three podcasts that I filled the hours I spent walking this year:

While I mostly listen to singles, I found myself particularly listening to these albums in 2020:

  • “Harlem River Blues,” Justin Townes Earle (2010, RIP)
  • “Alone Together Sessions,” Hayes Carll (2020)
  • “New Miserable Experience,” Gin Blossoms (1992)
  • Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

My 2020: By the Numbers

In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, that started with a list of best* posts of the year. Today is a list of numbers, data that somehow defines my year.

ΔΔΔ

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2020, including the people who contracted or died from COVID-19, votes cast, dollars spent on political advertising, false political claims made on Twitter by a sitting US president, wealth increased by the wealthiest billionaires, degrees the average temperatures rose, fires in Brazil and Africa, stock market tickers, shady phone calls, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvoth, or trivialities like cups of coffee, diapers, or speeding tickets.

Here are some numbers about my year:

  • 10 – classes taught (across 2 semesters)
    • 4 – schools taught at
    • 4 – modes of instruction
    • 5 – classes taught for the first time
    • 2 – self-paced online classes for which I was the instructor of record
    • 143 – students (excluding the self-paced students)
    • 5 – courses scheduled so far for 2021
    • 1 – reference letter written
  • 7 – Job applications
    • 2 – interviews
    • 2 – jobs I applied for cancelled because of COVID
  • 215.26 – Hours spent writing or editing academic work (YtD)
    • 2 – book reviews published
    • 0 – articles published
    • 1 – article-length pieces drafted
    • 1 – book contract signed
    • 1 – manuscript reviewed
    • 2 – interviews given
  • 53 – Books Read (YtD; not counting academic reading)
    • 18,858 – total pages
    • 355.8 – average pages per book
    • 15 – non-fiction books
    • 21 – books by women
    • 6 – books by African or African-American authors
    • 12 – Original languages
    • 15 – countries of origin
    • 2 – Graphic novels
  • 52 – Blog Posts (YtD)
    • 44,912 – words written
    • 864– average words per post
  • 4,128 – site visitors (up, roughly 35%)
  • 5,593 – site views (up, roughly 39%)
  • 5 – states visited
  • 1 – trips cancelled because of COVID
  • 2735 – Tweets (YtD)
    • 227.9 – average Tweets per month
    • 1,887,100 – Twitter impressions, per Twitter analytics
    • 1 –viral tweet (on December 12, it had 322,165 impressions)
  • 77 – miles run
  • 443.65 – miles walked (since mid-August, YtD)
  • 40,594 – pushups pushed (YtD)

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEan-inc, a private analytics organization. A NUDEan spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is unknown.

ΔΔΔ

Previous installments: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

My 2020: Best* Posts

It is time again for a series of posts that I use to reflect on the year that was. First up, I want to highlight some of my favorite posts to this point in the year. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

For many reasons I did not write here as much as I have in the past (2020 marked the lowest number of total posts since 2011), but writing about non-academic books I’ve read bore the brunt of this change—whether because that writing felt frivolous or because I didn’t have anything to say when I finished a book. My more substantive output didn’t change all that much and the posts I did write were, on balance, longer than in past years. The result is one of the longest Best* posts wrap-up since I started doing this end of year series.

Previously: 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

As in past years, I’ve written a bunch about teaching and writing in an academic context:

What Would I Write
Evidence, Please
Academic Style
Notes from Corona Campus
First Day Fragments: reflections on ZoomU 2.0

I also wrote a little bit about history and ancient history:

What Does It Mean to Learn From History
Bring Back Dokimasia
The Impossibility of Alexander
Thearion: The Paul Hollywood of Ancient Athens

One of my favorite pieces I wrote was about baking, in response to a sudden shortage of yeast after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Help! I’m Out of Yeast!

Finally, I wrote two pieces about pop culture that I particularly like, an exceptionally silly review of the best books I read this year and a reflection on my connection to Star Wars written in response to The Rise of Skywalker:

Day of the Oprichnik
Star Wars and I

Publication Wrap 2020

I had a slow-ish publishing year in 2020, making this a second consecutive year of big plans and limited outcomes, but at least this year I had an excuse!

That is not to say that I didn’t have any progress; quite the opposite, in fact.

I had four short pieces come out this year. Two of these were book reviews:

  1. of Rosalind Thomas’ Polis Histories, which came out in CJ-Reviews online over the summer and was chosen to appear in the print version of the journal.
  2. of a recent translation of Jacqueline de Romilly’s Alcibiades, which came out in The New England Classical Journal this fall.

Two more were interview pieces:

  1. I talked about an inscription thanking immigrants to Athens for their service fighting against a tyrannical government in Athens for the Comfort Classics series run by Cora Beth Knowles.
  2. For the Society for Classical Studies blog I wrote about being a contingent faculty member in higher education and how the current situation is unsustainable.

I didn’t have any original research come out, but I did make headway on several projects. I effectively finished a chapter on the Athenian conquest of the island of Samos in 366 BCE for inclusion in a volume on the Athenian orators and their use of recent history and completed an article on fourth century Ephesus and its relationship to Alexander the Great for which I am looking for a home.

I also buried the lede to this post.

Back in October, I signed an advance contract with University of Michigan Press to publish a book tentatively titled Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE. This book is a heavily revised version of my dissertation so while I have quite a lot of work between now and when I’m supposed to submit the manuscript, let alone see the book come out, I am also very excited to have taken a very real step toward one of my professional ambitions.

For a full list of my publications, with links to everything available online, visit this page. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, please contact me.

What is Making Me Happy: Basketball

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Basketball

It is probably time for me to admit that basketball is my favorite sport.

For years now I’ve split hairs, maintaining that while I prefer playing basketball (and ultimate) and watching football, baseball was nevertheless my favorite sport. No longer. I still like baseball and manage to short-circuit my ethical problems with football to enjoy watching it as a sport, but basketball is my favorite.

One of the handful of the most reliable things in my life over the past decade was a basketball game at 11 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Players came and went as people came and left Mizzou, but there were almost always enough people for a game. The games were of varying quality, which tends to happen when you’re playing pick-up, but there were enough people who had played on teams at one point or another in their life that the games we could get reasonably competitive games. We played 1s and 2s (rather than 2s and 3s) to fifteen—this is common, though, as Kirk Goldsberry once pointed out at Grantland, that scoring system pushes smart players to shoot from behind the three-point line to an extreme—with the winning team getting to keep the court agains the next set of challengers, playing until a critical mass of people had to leave for class, meetings, work, or were simply too tired to continue. Usually this happened around 1, but it could be much later, particularly on Friday.

This game meant both reliable stress relief in the middle of the day and really good exercise, at least until COVID arrived. I’ve since cancelled my gym membership since basketball was the primary attraction and I don’t know when or if I will get back to that.

The sudden end to basketball—my pick-up game, college basketball, and the NBA—caused me to reflect on how much I love the sport. The Last Dance might have mostly been Jordan hagiography, but when there was no other basketball I absolutely ate up its nostalgic trip back to the 1990s and then when the NBA returned in its bubble over the summer I found myself watching really loving the chance to watch a small group of teams (with the best players and best coaches) over and over again and getting to appreciate the little nuances of the games.

At some level, I can appreciate NBA basketball in the same way that I can appreciate ballet. The men who reach that point are spectacularly good athletes who make unbelievable leaps look ordinary even if I have a little bit of coach brain—my coaching experience only entitles me to a little bit of coach brain—that is appalled by the lack of fundamentals and lapses of focus that they display. The league uses a deeper three-point line, but the court is otherwise the same size as the college court, but I am also fond of saying that the NBA game is fundamentally different than even the college game because the players are so big and so fast. Personally, I would widen and lengthen the court, rather like international hockey plays on a larger rink.

While a single player can sometimes dominate a game more than in some other team sports, it is also fundamentally a team game at any level and one that is unusually revealing. You can learn a lot about a person by how they play on the court and how they interact with their teammates off it. It was for this reason that one of my favorite pieces of journalism from the 2016 democratic primary campaign was a report in The Guardian that tracked down people who played pick-up basketball with Bernie Sanders in the 1970s. The piece came about after video surfaced of Sanders in a gymnasium in New Hampshire just idly putting up shots before or after a campaign event, and the author tried to use that game to offer insight into his background.

And yet, as Gary Gullman movingly talked about in his comedy special The Great Depresh that I tracked down early in 2020 after listening to him on the Lowe Post Podcast, basketball is also a game that you can play on your own. You don’t need anyone to play catch with. All you need is a ball and a hoop.

I find that the act of practicing a jump shot or even putting up free throws can be a form of meditation in that it forces me to get into a flow that bring the different parts of my body and my focus into sync. Basketball is a game of repeated movements within a confined space and more than once I have identified something that is going wrong with my writing while tuning into something going on with my jump shot. The loss of basketball was thus particularly frustrating for me this year and I never got around to purchasing a ball to use on the court in my local park. That changed several days ago when my partner gave me a ball for Christmas, so, if you will excuse me, I want to go get some shots up while the sun is still out.