Jul 18, 2011

Radiolab Reads: Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights -- This is one that's worth consuming in its original form.

Maybe you've seen the movie. Or watched the TV show. But if you haven't read the book, you're missing out on the best version. Seriously. And I really like stuff I can watch on the screen.

I started watching Friday Night Lights (the TV show) a few weeks ago -- you can get the first four seasons free on Netflix streaming -- because we're producing a piece that's, well, it's a very FNL type of story, and Jad suggested I watch the show to help me get my head around one way you can tell that kind of story -- Jad, by the way, is totally obsessed with the TV show. So I did. And it's damn good. So damn good I watched the first season in a week -- yeah, didn't get out much that week.

But then, last week, I was telling a friend about this and she gave me the book. Read this; it was a command. So I did. And it kinda blew my mind. The book gives you a level of detail, a degree of reflection, that you just can't get from a TV show or a movie. It gets you way far inside the minds and hearts of these players. And unlike the TV show, the book is all fact -- beautiful, true, real fact.

The book tells the story of the 1988 Permian Panthers, the high school football team around which the entire town of Odessa, Texas, revolves. The place lives and dies on the wins and losses of this team. It's beautiful. But also kinda disturbing.

The author is a reporter from Philly -- one of the country's best; Pulitzer winner; contributing editor at Vanity Fair -- named H.G. Bissinger, who moved with his family to Odessa to spend a year hanging out with the football team. Bissinger interviewed hundreds of people, but in his preface, he says he learned as much "from the personal experience of living there, with a wife and five-year-old twin boys. Odessa very much became home for a year, a place where our kids went to school and we worked and voted and forged lasting friendships."

Moving to small-town Texas for a a year is the kind of ballsy move by a reporter that gives me chills. And it led Bissinger to a story that isn't just about a football team, but about life "in a certain kind of America, an America that existed beyond the borders of the Steinberg cartoon, an America of factory towns and steel towns and single-economy towns all trying to survive." It's a true epic. And you should read it.

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