A wide-ranging history of fitness.
In a narrative that touches on many sports but constantly circles back to bodybuilding, Modern Painters editor-in-chief Kunitz, a one-time editor at Paris Review and Details, gives due honor to his athletic predecessors while wondering aloud whether we have “been working out the wrong way for thousands of years and only just, in my lifetime, stumbled onto a better path.” It’s a meaningful question, one of many in an elegant book that, though full of sweat and pulled muscles and jock itch, also contains many meditations on why so many people put themselves through so much pain in order to create something different of themselves. That’s one motivation, but there are more: sex is better in a well-trained body, due to strength and confidence, and there are other improvements to health and the immune system and benefits in slowing aging and fighting depression—as well as trails that lead “beyond these physical benefits to the metaphysical.” Those metaphysical interests place his book squarely on the shelf alongside John Jerome’s The Elements of Effort (1998), that fine treatise on running, but its literary qualities suggest George Plimpton, Kunitz’s one-time boss. The narrative moves nicely among philosophy, memoir, journalism, and history. Especially enthralling is the author’s account of how Muscle Beach, on the coast near Los Angeles, got its name and why it matters in athletic history. “Though they mixed easily with the physical culture crowd,” writes Kunitz, “the Nature Boys only added to the impression of Muscle Beach as a magnet for weirdoes.” The author also looks into the future and a physical culture crowd conditioned by different expectations, including different ideas of what healthy bodies and healthy diets look like and of what activities are best for what goals.
An excellent contribution to the literature of athletic performance and of interest to anyone with a penchant for self-improvement—and not just physical.