Beach read, smeach read. I think that we should all read anything we want in the summer – spin the wheel and pick a genre, any genre. The New Yorker (available to us online, 24-hours a day, through RBdigital) published an article which unveiled the truth behind the summer reading season.
It turns out that the whole summer reading phenomenon is a put-up job created by the publishing industry at the turn of the last century. Those clever marketing people just wanted to sell more books! When vacation getaways became popular, thanks to railways and steamships, they got to work and made sure that their product would be ready for packing into stylish suitcases. They repackaged older titles as “summer” editions (I know that I would be fooled by this – I can easily be taken in by a book with a straw hat on the cover), encouraged their authors to write novels set on campsites and summer resorts and poof, made the summer novel an important part of the publishing market. Well, it all worked out well for them, didn’t it?
Now it seems like every newspaper and magazine we receive here in the library runs a feature on summer reads, beach reads, resort reads or cottage reads. Men’s Health magazine (available on the shelf and through RBdigital) has even promoted books that are ‘unsung beach reads’ in their July/August issue. I’m in favour of this, wholeheartedly. Let’s all read more!
I recently fell so hard for a book that didn’t have a straw hat on the cover and looks more like a back-to-school title than anything else but I encourage you to rush out and grab a copy. Mind and Matter, the memoir by former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel is not your typical NFL story. It’s really not like any book I’ve ever read before. The subtitle of his book is “a life in math and football” because at the time his book was published John was working towards his PhD in math at MIT. Not something might expect to read about a former NFL player and maybe that is what makes this book a fantastic read. I read it, one of my daughters read it and then my husband picked it up and we all have not stopped talking about it whenever we can move conversation towards the topic of John Urschel. If we have talked to you in the last few weeks we have probably mentioned him.
Although he was born in Winnipeg, Urschel had moved to Buffalo by the time he attended high school. He began to play football because he was inspired by his father’s college career and saw it as a way to be popular. Urschel enjoyed the sport and loved being on a team right away but it wasn’t easy. He worked hard, practiced at home and had extra coaching from his father so that he could catch up with kids who were far stronger players. But something that did come easy to him, even at a very young age, were puzzles and math.
When John Urschel was just 13 his mother arranged for him to audit a college-level Calculus course because she knew that he would enjoy it so much. They played a little game where she would let him have the change from their shopping trips if he could calculate the tax before the cashier finished tallying their purchases. She had to stop that quickly as his mental work was so quick.
Everything Urschel writes in this autobiography is very matter of fact, partially because he wants to tell a convincing story about following the path that feels right to you, even when people around you are telling you it isn’t the right one, and all of the little glimpses he shares about his younger grades just jump off the page.
He wrote this book with the assistance of his partner, author Louisa Thomas, and it is honest and inspiring (even when he gets down to the nitty gritty of explaining a multi-step logic problem). Urschel made the choice to accept a scholarship to Penn State in 2010 although his mother was pressuring him to attend Stanford because he felt like their football team would be the best fit for him. When he arrives on their campus it’s the first step in a long journey to the NFL and this half of his life story is filled with exactly what you would expect – grueling workouts, games out of town, making lifelong friendships with other players and fighting to keep his spot on the roster. Learning about his time at Penn State is particularly interesting as he was there during the time that football players were sanctioned for the acts of their former coach Jerry Sandusky. It’s the first of many moments in John’s life that the reader feels like they have that “fly on the wall” experience.
When Urschel was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2014 draft he had completed his master’s degree and even published a paper in an academic journal. At this time in his football career he was starting to feel the pull of his academic interests but still wanted to stay with the team. Incredibly he was able to balance both his school world and the life of an NFL player. It’s wonderful to read the story of his management saying that now that he is signed to a big football contract it’s time to do something about the horrible car he has been driving. Urschel had been driving the same car for years so he agreed to this and asked that they order him a Nissan Versa. A new one, certainly, but not the type of car you would expect of someone who has just signed an NFL contract. And definitely a slightly smaller car than would comfortably fit an offensive lineman. It’s a story that is constantly fascinating.
Something you would expect in a memoir about a football player is for it to discuss concussions. He talks about the possibility of injury, brain and body, throughout his career and the part they play in his life. Each time he considers whether he will continue on in the sport this is something that is on his mind and he spends time in the book discussing how he is able to compartmentalize his feelings about injuries. He is aware of the chance he could develop CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and addresses his concerns. He is honest about how it might change the direction of his career as a mathematician but he continues to work at both math and football with equal passion despite experiencing a concussion during Ravens training camp in August of 2015.
His love of football and mathematics are interwoven perfectly throughout the book and that is one of the things that make it such a pleasure to read – the balance. He gives equal weight to both and as you read you can see why he devotes so much to making both parts of his life a success. This isn’t an autobiography that gives much detail outside of those two pursuits but this helps you to see why he does so well in both vocations. He occasionally mentions other players on his teams, shares details about the mentors he has at the universities or says how much he enjoys the campus where he lives but there are very few incidental moments shared about how he spent his life. At the end of the book you realize the reason for this is because it’s likely he didn’t have much extra time between playing a competitive sport and his academic life. Well, he does mention wanting to take a break at one point, and this is when he takes up chess in a more serious way. He had enjoyed it off and on throughout his life but when he decides he needs it for a change of pace he orders specialized books, studies the most famous games, and finds himself spending hours contemplating a particular position on the board.
Finally Urschel does find that his life at MIT is the more appealing one. He acknowledges that either football or mathematics would benefit from his full-time attention and he knows that he is looking forward to going back to school more than being at ‘work’ on the football field. It isn’t a decision that he makes easily (and in an interview I read he says that he does miss his NFL pay cheque) and he notes that his fiancé and their daughter factor into his retirement from the NFL.
At a young age John Urschel decided that he wanted to choose an unexpected career path and put everything he could into making his unlikely future happen. In Mind and Matter he has written an inspiring, enjoyable memoir that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages – whether they enjoy math or football or neither of those things – his story is so compelling. And, if you want to, skip ahead to the logic puzzle it is on pages 8 through 12 (yes, it takes 5 pages to describe this puzzle and the solution, he is the real deal).
— Penny M.