Christmas, I fear, is the season when coffee-table books proliferate. These volumes, massive in cost and dimension, more closely resemble furniture than literature, but there are at least three of them in this season's holiday tonnage that I commend to your attention.
In The Super Bowl (Simon and Schuster, $50), the publisher and the National Football League have combined resources to describe in words and pictures everything anyone could possibly want to know about this Brobdingnagian sporting event. There are complete statistics of all 24 games to date, rosters of all the players, albums of action photographs, and individual game stories by such polished sports journalists as Mickey Herskowitz, Ray Didinger, Kevin Lamb, Bill McGrane, Phil Musick and Shelby Strother. As befits a book of such impressive bulk, this one has both a foreword, written by Pete Rozelle, and an introduction, by veteran writer-editor John Wiebusch, and each bulges with Super Bowl trivia. For example:
•Ticket prices have gone from a top of $12 for Super Bowl I, held in 1967, to $125 for last season's XXIV.
•In Super Bowl I, CBS charged $85,000 for a commercial minute on television, and NBC, $75,000. In the forthcoming XXV, 30 seconds on ABC costs $850,000.
December 24, 1990
•Nine of the 10 top-rated television programs of all time have been Super Bowls, the only interloper being the final episode of M*A*S*H.
•Super Bowls I and II weren't. The championship game between the AFL and NFL wasn't even called a Super Bowl until game III. The name was inspired by Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt's daughter, Sharron, who likened the game to the then popular bouncing Super Ball.
•The games are rarely close. The average margin of victory for all 24 games is 16.9 points, and seven games have been won by more than 20 points.
And yet, writes Wiebusch, quoting the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, "If Jesus were alive today, He would be at the Super Bowl." Or, like 750 million mere mortals in 60 countries, he would catch it on the tube.
Chess, to be sure, is quite a different sort of game, and in Chess: An Illustrated History (Simon and Schuster, $35), Raymond Keene captures its cerebral essence in elegant prose and photographs. Keene, chess correspondent of The Times of London, and himself a grand master, traces the history of the game from its origins several millennia ago in India, where it was conceived of as "an oriental paradigm of battle," to the modern era of Kasparov and Karpov. The game has been transformed culturally from a "potent symbol of stylized battle for the chivalric classes" to an intellectual exercise for everyman, thanks in no small part to the Russians, who have dominated the game for the past 50 years.
This book has magnificent photos of opulent chess sets, of ancient games and modern champions, and of chess painting, notably by Daumier and Duchamp. And Keene's writing strikes a proper balance between the not necessarily opposing intellectual and military natures of the game. Read him on the decline of the Russian champion Boris Spassky: "His tournament results, his èlan quenched by [Bobby] Fischer's onslaught, are now littered with the debris of countless anodyne games.... Spassky is now a prime example of a once bold warrior converted to pacifism."
Maybe poor old peace-loving Spassky should have quit when he was ahead and gone fishing, for as Charles H. Traub writes in his splendid prose and photo anthology, An Angler's Album (Rizzoli, $50), "No human activity is more ripe with humor than angling." Even if you are not a fisherman (as I most assuredly am not), this remarkable book can coax a smile from you. What Traub, a professional photographer and amateur fisherman, has done is collect some of the finest fishing photographs of the last 150 years and some of the cleverest prose of the last 2,000. His photographers include such 19th-century pioneers as Giocchino Altobelli and William Henry Jackson (see his 1883 "Trout Fishing at Wagon Wheel Gap") and such moderns as Lefty Kreh (see his "Trout Taking Nymph"). His writers include the likes of Plutarch, Ovid, Shakespeare, Izaak Walton (of course), Goethe, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, Thoreau (naturally), Shaw, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway (who else?) and Steinbeck.
The novelist Zane Grey is depicted on page 91 posing rather pompously beside a 450-pound sailfish he caught off Catalina Island in 1924. You can almost hear Grey saying, as Traub quotes him, "A fisherman is a lazy bad boy grown up."