I spent more time with The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (Current, an imprint of Penguin; $26.95, excerpted here) than any of the previous 30 books I've reviewed for The Word.
Author David Epstein -- whose book recently debuted at number nine on The New York Times bestseller list -- possesses three degrees from Columbia University and found his niche covering sports medicine as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated.
Inevitably, some of his facts and hypotheses will become outdated as more is learned about the vast implications of tiny DNA distinctions. But that's what Epstein wants, because he is invigorated by science and gifted with the hindsight of a former college athlete (he was a mid-distance runner).
Taking away the acknowledgements, citations and index, The Sports Gene is less than 300 pages in a good-sized typesetting, which seems admirable given the complexity of Epstein's subject. He traveled from Alaska to Africa to do his reporting, and produced the equivalent of a Ripley's Believe It or Not! archive of modern athletics. Unfortunately, there are no photos.
A significant portion of my college curriculum was devoted to sports history, and like Epstein, I've interviewed Olympic gold medalists, World Series winners, and professional athletes close to my age -- such as Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, this past Tuesday -- who will earn more money this month than I will before I die.
Despite our kindred spirits, I needed 11 days to read The Sports Gene. Each fascinating page took me well over two minutes to read. Now, holding the hardcover, it feels completely foreign, as if I haven't seen it before. I have no idea whether or not I liked the book, which probably means I didn't. I am as exhausted as I was when I watched Les Misérables.
Perhaps the book was too formulaic. Most chapters began with a main anecdote, followed by a scientific explanation mingled with smaller narratives, and ended with a rhetorical question. One problem was that these questions could usually be answered with a single predictable word.
Does talent or training foster phenomenal athleticism? Both.
Are black people better at sports than white people? Sometimes.
How many genetically perfect pros have we had? None.
How often is logic defied? Daily.
There are lots of examples and statistics, and a lot of rereading and cross-referencing is required. The Sports Gene would fail the theoretical elevator test: if the doors were closing, it'd be very difficult to sum up the book in a few hurried seconds. Sometimes that's okay. Describing The Catcher in the Rye as "a guy who hates phonies" is unjust. But in nonfiction, where readers turn for the opposite experience of The Great American Novel, a succinct objective works best.
Listening to an interview with Epstein on NPR's Fresh Air is a pleasure -- he engages in articulate banter. Although I'm usually a visual learner, this time I was able to immediately understand and differentiate between concepts that blurred together on the page. "Your biological set-up to respond well to training'' matters more than anyone's innate skills, Epstein says. What makes an elite athlete is "the software not the hardware."
There is a particular reason why reading The Sports Gene may have been such personal drudgery. Recently, I voluntarily completed an intensive outpatient program for anxiety and depression. Six hours a day for three weeks, I concentrated exclusively on why we are the way we are. Epstein's book is good; I'm just natured vs. nurtured out.