Sunday, April 04, 2010

Book Review: American Football

Well, unlike the first time I quoted it, the second time I cited on here Walter Camp's American Football, I actually bothered to finish it.

This book occupies somewhat of an unusual place in the list of football books I've read. Most of those, really, have been quite recently published, and those that haven't have written about a clearly modern game. Dr. Z's New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football may be over 25 years old, but it is recognizably about the same game. I ran across references to Camp's 1891 work in other books, but it had been out of print and unless I wanted to fork over a good deal of coin (Matthew Ridgway's copy was listed for $1800), it would probably forever be one of those mythical works that seemed important but I would never read. Now, of course, it's not only available from Amazon, but also online, in a variety of formats.

The question then is, how is it? The answer is, well, I wish I'd seen that it was available online before I had already plunked down the money for a paper copy. There are a couple of interesting statements in it, like the one I quoted Friday, but none is particularly deep or insightful. Moreover, the greater volume of the book is taken up with a sort of Play Football the NFL Way for the pre-forward pass era. Considering Bass's supposedly quite fine work has been sitting on my shelf unread for at least the better part of a year, and reading what I do write about football, one might suspect detailed descriptions of technique of positions from what seems like only a marginally recognizable game might not be of great interest. And one who suspected as much would be right.

While American Football is a slim volume, reading it was more time-consuming than I expected. Part of it was, yes, my lack of great concern about technique (a topic I plan to write about in greater depth at some point), but part of it was things like Camp's habit of discussing in consecutive paragraphs a position's offensive responsibilities and its defensive responsibilities without any sort of transition. This was especially in a problem in the guard and tackle chapters, while the end rusher chapter seemed to focus almost exclusively on the defensive side. Getting it into my head that "pass" meant only laterals was another thing I had to struggle with. It's one thing to realize it conceptually, but another to try to translate into a concrete understanding and visualization of what kind of actions Camp is discussing. What doesn't help is that the book is ill-structured; the "chapter for spectators" comes at the end of the book. That format, and the chapters on signals and training, make it clear this book was intended as a sort of proto-coach's manual and guide for players than the sort of book fans might enjoy.

Ultimately, I'd say unless you're interested in finding an old-timey football quote, American Football isn't worth your time. And, if you are interested, grab an electronic copy and if you want paper, have a print shop put it into a binding rather than repeating my mistake.

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