Bill Syken, a former editor and reporter with Sports Illustrated, has edited and written several titles for SI Books, including Baseball's Greatest and Packers: Green, Gold and Glory. SI's latest release, Any Given Number: Who Wore It Best, from 00 to 99 (Time Home Entertainment, May 6, 2014), debates the best athlete to wear every uniform number. Syken's novel Night of the Punter will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2015. He resides in Philadelphia, Pa.
On your nightstand now:
The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne. The last couple years I've been reading travel books, which I never used to do, and a favorite has been Osborne's Bangkok Days. The Wet and the Dry, which is about drinking in Muslim countries (and also about just plain drinking), is enjoyable, though it has some valleys to go along with its peaks. But I am happy to support Osborne's boozy wanderings, if only so I can continue to enjoy them vicariously. I intend to read his novel The Ballad of a Small Player this summer.
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin. I believe I read Cruel Shoes for the first time when I was at school, during a "silent reading" period, and I struggled mightily not to laugh. At a younger age, I was a big fan of John Dennis Fitzgerald's Great Brain books, and also the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol. The first nonfiction books I loved were both sports veil-lifters, and classics: Jim Bouton's Ball Four and David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game.
Your top five authors:
In alphabetical order: Miguel de Cervantes, Patricia Highsmith, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Jennifer Weiner. In full disclosure, I live with one of these authors. Hint: it's not Cervantes.
Book you've faked reading:
I've faked reading the novels of actor Gabriel Byrne, which is particularly pernicious because I don't believe he's written any. But in general I would not actually lie about this sort of thing. I freely admit to not having read anything by William Faulkner, Junot Díaz and many, many others. With so many great books, I don't know why I would be expected to have read them all. My favorite book that I read last summer, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, was an Oprah book club pick in 2001, you know what I mean?
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. I only bought this book because a woman in a bookstore--not a clerk, a complete stranger--talked me into it, and I'm glad she did. In an ideal world, every nonfiction book would be reported this thoroughly and patiently, and written this well.
Book you've bought for the cover:
If we're talking about the cover image, none. But I'm susceptible to being swayed by blurbs. The most recent example would be Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road, which was touted as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and had testimonials both credible and intriguing. I bought it, and I discovered an author I intend to read more of. You can tell this travelogue was written in the previous decade because he simply mentions the food that he eats without going on and on about it.
Book that changed your life:
This fall I read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is about how people make decisions and form opinions. I usually don't read books like this--I have no interest in, say, the works of Malcolm Gladwell--but Kahneman's book changed my perceptions about a great many things, from marketing to how people tell stories.
Favorite line from a book:
For something quippish, I recently liked "They wanted to raise a future Jeopardy! contestant instead of a future Jeopardy! clue" from Mo' Meta Blues, the memoir by Ahmir "Questlove" Jackson and Ben Greenman. Also, in Amos Oz's A Perfect Peace I liked it when a character said, "A man is only a man--and even that only rarely." If I were able to choose a full passage rather than a line, I would go with Orhan Pamuk's brief but magnificent chapter about his grandmother, in his memoir Istanbul. She governed her family while rarely getting out of bed, with the help of a carefully angled dressing-table mirror and a servant. I read the entire chapter out loud to my lady friend, after which she had a new role model.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I'd like another shot at Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books and Peter Straub's Blue Rose trilogy. And this time, I'd like to read the books in their proper sequence. In both cases, I accidentally read the books out of order and I wouldn't mind a second go-around to get things right.