Is there a book you return to again and again, a work that would make life on a desert island bearable? Each weekend, between Canada Day and Labour Day, Globe writers will share their go-to tomes – be it novel, poetry collection, cookbook – and why the world is just a little better for them.
My parents, postwar immigrants from Belgium, believed there was little point in holding on too tightly to the old country. At home we spoke English, not Dutch, and immersed ourselves in North American sports. Weekends from fall through spring were spent at the hockey arena. Soccer was something to be played in the schoolyard, badly in my case, while I waited for the weather to be warm enough for baseball.
I can't quite explain why, in my late-20s, I became captivated by the world's game. But I'm pretty sure that Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch helped to get me hooked.
Fever Pitch endures despite Hollywood's attempt to ruin it with a silly rom-com in which Jimmy Fallon plays a Boston Red Sox fan who gets the girl in the end. You'll find it on most lists of the best soccer books ever written, though it's not only about soccer. Mostly, it is a memoir about obsession.
"I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it," Hornby begins. In 1968, at 11 years old, Hornby went from being uninterested in the sport to being consumed by it, in that way kids of that age do.
The catalyst was his parents' separation. Hornby lived with his mother, so father and son needed a place to be together during weekend visits. When young Nick catches the soccer bug after attending exactly one game, Highbury, then the home stadium of the Arsenal Football Club, becomes that place.
As the boy grows into a man, soccer – "my childhood comforter, my security blanket" – is a constant companion on the march into adulthood. His early days at the University of Cambridge are made easier when Hornby finds a group of fellow obsessives (and falls for yet another team, Cambridge United, in the minor leagues of English soccer). His university years bring love and a serious relationship – marked by the momentous decision to take a girlfriend to Highbury for the first time.
When he reaches his early-30s, Hornby quits his job as a teacher, tries to make a go of it as a writer, and decides to move to a home near the stadium. It was, Hornby writes, "the fulfillment of a pitiful 20-year ambition, and it's no use trying to dress it up as logic." Fever Pitch came out a few years later, in 1992, winning a prize for sportswriting and providing a launchpad for Hornby's career as a novelist and screenwriter (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to be Good and others).
I discovered the book nearly a decade after it was published. I was still a relative newcomer to Toronto and accidentally found myself playing, incompetently, on a soccer team in a men's league. My forgiving teammates became weekend companions in a city where I had few friends. Most of them had played and watched soccer their entire lives and I needed to understand what the hell they were talking about.
Fever Pitch was part of my education. One of its charms is the way Hornby weaves his own personal story with the recent history of the game and of Britain itself. When I picked up the book I knew little about the culture of English soccer, its clubs and its supporters.
I knew even less about its dark side, a subject about which Hornby writes movingly. He recalls attending an Arsenal match one afternoon in April, 1989 as news drifted into the stadium of trouble at another match in Sheffield. "There were rumours emanating from those with radios, but we didn't really know anything about it until halftime … and even then nobody had any real idea of the sickening scale of it all." Scores of fans were crushed in overpacked stands at a game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and as the death toll rose to 96 people, "nothing would ever be the same again."
The disaster was a turning point for the sport. Out of it came a series of reforms that led to better stadiums, more investment and, ultimately, a healthier sport. Around the time Fever Pitch was published, England's top clubs launched the Premier League to take advantage of a flood of new television money and a quarter-century later the sport is more global than ever. Some 300 million people watched the final of the 2012 European championships. The number will surely be higher this Sunday when Portugal and France fight for the trophy.
Still, some things never change. Despite its status as one of the world's biggest clubs, Arsenal still finds a way to disappoint. It always comes short of winning the Premier League title and falls out the top European tournament at an early stage. I'm sure that Nick Hornby suffers when this happens, and because of his book, now I do, too.