Seven sports books for Wrestliana

Toby Litt


THESE ARE the seven sports books that most helped me write Wrestliana.


Wrestliana by William Litt
The book that started my book. It’s a boastful, one-sided, waywardly rigorous and wildly rambunctuous argument for Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling as the most noble human activity. William Litt (1785–1850) was my great-great-great grandfather. When I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a writer, William was what they grabbed for – as evidence that someone in our family, long ago, had once done the same thing. Wrestliana was published in 1823, and is still read as an early and important sports book.


Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling by Roger Robson
Roger Robson put together an anthology of writings about, and photographs of, the form of wrestling he most loves – and about which he knows probably more than anyone else in the world. William Litt is a central figure, because he’s such an important source of information. But Roger Robson’s book demonstrates, most of all, how Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling is a family business. The same names recur in the lists of winners, grandson following father and grandfather – and now granddaughter joining in, too.







The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success by David Epstein
This helped me think about what William Litt would have to have gone through in order to become – in his own words – the ‘Winner of 200 Belts’ for Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling. A few years ago, I was very won over to the idea of ‘the 10,000 hours rule’ by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. They argued that you (me, anyone) needed 10,000 hours of ‘purposeful practice’ to become an expert at any activity. Looking back, I thought I’d written about half a million words before I wrote anything much good. They’d probably taken around 10,000 hours. David Epstein’s The Sports Gene says, ‘Hang on, things aren’t that simple.’ He goes into difficult areas, into genetics, body type, class, race. He offers a more integrated, and scientifically rich, version of what it takes to become a champion. He’s especially good on running fast or, in my case, not running fast.


String Theory by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s writing on tennis is miraculous. He’s appreciative of just how good you need to be in order for armchair experts to slag you off as mediocre. He can sum up the importance, the artfulness, of moments of physical performance. Years before starting on Wrestliana, I’d read and been awed by his sports writing in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. To repeat for one last time my DFW tennis joke: his collected tennis writings should surely have been titled Lob the Considerer


Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession by William Skidelsky
I hit a very rough patch in the middle of Wrestliana, where I wasn’t sure what it should be at all. Reading this clear, fresh account of Skidelsky’s love of Federer – and his mildly obsessive pursuit of him – what reassured me was that Skidelsky hadn’t embedded himself for a year with the Federer training camp. He had limited access to the man, but made a virtue of this. Nor was he trying to take on David Foster Wallace, because he knew he’d lose.


Levels of the Game by John McPhee
This is the best sports book I read. It’s got the best writing. It’s clear, beautiful and quietly political. It tells the story of a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, two very different men who had lived two very different lives. The match was the semi-final of the 1968 US Open. When writing about William Litt’s own wrestling matches, I had John McPhee’s clarity as an aspiration.


Out of my League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur’s  Ordeal in Professional Baseball by George Plimpton
This book is the originary text of ‘participatory journalism’ – where the no-hoper is grudgingly or delightedly allowed a go at professional level sport. George Plimpton, who disliked the term, got his foot in the locker-room door, wedged it open, ambled in, looked and sniffed around, trained a bit, humiliated himself on the field of play and then wrote it up urbanely. I needed to look at this before I had my own bash at wrestling. Ouch!