I can’t put my finger on why I read so few books this year … Oh, fuck it, of course I can. I had a kid — my first — but I won’t blame this on him. Sure, I got a lot less sleep, but when I was awake, I played a lot of videogames on my iPhone. I read a lot of articles on the internet. I wrote a lot of Tumblr posts. A whole, miserable baseball season happened. And occasionally they’d be showing one of the Oceans movies on TV and I’d watch half of it. And did I mention the videogames? I tried to read more. Really, I did. I started and abandoned no fewer than 20 books. I’d pick something up, read 150 pages, and then leave it to molder while I read something in The New Yorker (okay, on The New Yorker’s blog). Nothing could hold my interest long enough to propel me to the end.
I’m proud of none of this, but I bring it up to emphasize how much of a joy it was to get Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron in the mail and to finish it the very next day. Here was the reading experience I was looking for! I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I read it over breakfast, over lunch. I voluntarily took the bus to work (the bus!), just so I’d have extra time to read. It was the book that reminded me what a pleasure a great book can be.
Raab, born and raised in Cleveland, that most accursed of sports towns, has written not only the definitive book on LeBron James, but in my opinion, the greatest treatise on fandom since Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Raab follows LeBron through his final season in Cleveland, his ESPN-fueled ego-fest “The Decision,” and his first season with the Miami Heat. The results are a mellifluously written screed the likes of which I’ve never before encountered.
There’s a singular pleasure in reading a really good insult, and The Whore of Akron delivers that, again and again. Raab excels at excoriation, and James is hardly his only target. Take, for example, that arch villain of Cleveland sports, former Browns owner Art Modell. Every time his name appears in the book it is followed by an ever-changing string of invective, such as “may he be buried naked in a pigsty with a corncob wedged in every orifice.” But it’s James who bears the brunt of this book. Raab takes pleasure in pointing out the many instances — on and off the court — that show LeBron to be at best a spoiled, immature kid, and at worst an egomaniac whose insecurities would make a teenage anorexic blush.
Of course, if you’re going to flay someone to the extent that Raab does, you’d better be ready to look within, as well. Raab is unflinchingly honest about his life as an addict, his divorce, his weight-gain, and his frankly grotesque health issues (at one point, his feet swell so much that he must wrap them in bandages). And to be fair, there are moments when Raab crosses the line, writing about LeBron’s penis and wishing for James to suffer a serious injury. It’s his consistent honesty that makes those moments seem not only forgivable but understandable — he’s just an ardent fan.
And it’s an odd time to be a fan. Sure you can watch any game you want on TV, and you can even get up close and quasi-personal with your favorite players on Twitter. But you’re also forced to watch as your favorite player weasels his way onto another team so he can play with the guy who owns the beach house next to his. You’ve had to endure labor battles in two of the three major American sports at a time when regular citizens are out in the streets protesting inequality. And you have to watch ESPN, probably the worst insult of them all. If ever there was a time for some anger, this is it. And The Whore of Akron is the angriest book on the shelf. Read it.
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