I remember being 18 years old, secretly thinking that all the good writers were dead or past their prime. I wanted to be born in the twenties, where wilderness was untamed and fiction was wide open. I knew there must be someone great out there, but the only writers I had loved were the Hemingways and Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds I had come across in English class.
A girl was opening my eyes to some later writers—John McPhee’s Coming into the Country is the perfect thing to read when you’re young, you live in Alaska, and the closest thing you have to a summer job is painting houses and digging the foundation for a cabin with your closest friends. I read Tender is the Night and A Moveable Feast, and this was how I wanted to write.
It is now, I am confused to say, seven years after that August. The cabin is finished. Over Christmas, snow hangs from its roof and in precarious stacks on the birch branches; and at night the lantern flickers through the windows and projects twisted patterns in the snow. My friends who dug its foundation with me are vagabonds or law students; and I still don’t know what I am, just that it isn’t quite what I planned.
Unexpected things happened, among them a passion for sports that sent me on an odd path for a 135 pounder. Instead of writing and camping, I played six years of rugby, fell in love with the intricacies of the game—the mathematics of fifteen giants coordinating and improvising and mustering the courage to stay calm through pain, exhaustion, and pressure. My friend Aaron got his sixth concussion on my behalf—he was choking back vomit on the field but he kept tackling until the final whistle. Another friend broke his nose for me, another a hip and femur; and, while I wrote every day, it was not novels, or screenplays, or the frantic abyss of freelance journalism that I had anticipated. Instead, I wrote in the few hours I could find between practices for two sports (hockey keeps you in shape for the scrum) and I read rugby strategy books. One year I played on five teams just to learn the game, because I owed these larger men my best, I owed them wins; and my biggest job was to not to sacrifice my body, but to read the field.
So I felt reconnected, full circle, reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side. It’s a football story, a sociology case study, and an economics book in that it studies how systems create incentives. It is also genuine great reporting about the evolution of strategy. Lewis studies the game from every level, from the turf to the boardroom, ties it to economics, luck, and Oher’s story, and manages to weave an engaging narrative from these disparate parts. This book is what happens when a writer masters his craft and it coincides with a story deserving of excellence.
Lewis describes how the ebb and flow of NFL strategies sweeps Michael Oher, a sixteen-year-old with learning disabilities and little football experience, into the role of a college football prospect. Oher is practically homeless. He’s grown up without knowing his dad and with a mom in rehab. New NFL tactics trigger an explosion in demand for a unique type of athlete to protect quarterbacks, just as Oher, with the right body type, starts high school football.
To tie the conceptual to the physical, Lewis’s narrative opens vividly on the field and expands to show the rational gears behind a chaotic game. He captures the pressure of a quarterback being hunted, reliant on larger men for protection. He then describes the dance of teams redistributing resources to turn an opponent’s strength into a weakness, and how the absolute advantage of one talented athlete upsets the whole system.
But, surely, if I go on about football when I discuss this book, I’m missing the point, just like all those kids who read Liar’s Poker and told Lewis they were inspired to start a career in finance. But it was his descriptions of football that stuck with me.
It isn’t easy to write clearly about tactics, X’s and Os. Details get over-technical and jargon threatens to confuse readers. The West Coast Offense lacks the personality of a character. But Lewis draws out the drama of coaches at chalkboards. The intellectual battle feels as gripping as real battle—a reminder that exciting writing depends less on the scale of events than the craft of describing them. Lewis backs up his story with extensive reporting, research, and interviews.
Reading the book returned me to the familiar frenzy of a rugby match, but with the clarity of hindsight. It caught the feeling of tactical back and forth—like when an opponent defends with a drift-defense, double-teaming the outside, so you run handoffs and crash men inside them; and defending flankers start anticipating it and holding back, so you go wide again, each team outguessing the other like a combination of chess and rock paper scissors.
At this point, I realize I’m speaking gibberish.
If Michael Lewis were writing that last paragraph, it would make sense. It’s not just that Lewis can clarify complex plays and make them as exciting to read as a thriller. It’s that he is so young and will keep writing like this for 40 or 50 years, only improving.
I feel again like I did at 18, except with the thought that now is the exciting era to be alive. When I get off work, I won’t have time to read all the great writers of this generation, and it thrills me to imagine trying. The journalists alone are a gift: Lewis and Eggers and Susan Orlean, not to mention our own Steve Elliot. The fiction writers thrill me too.
And reading about Michael Oher as he travels from homelessness to college, or hearing Eggers say that anyone who works at it can learn it, is rescuing for me that same sense of possibility I felt seven years ago when I leaned on my shovel in the cabin’s foundation trench. I looked through the trees at the lush enclosure of the Matanuska Valley, a thunderstorm swelling above the jagged mountains, falling on the glacier, heading our way. Great stories were possible, I felt, and with determination, they can be both lived and told.
(Full disclosure: in 2007 I served as research assistant for Lewis’s anthology of economic journalism, Panic. Haven’t seen him much since then.)