Dot Net Book Review: The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker
By Will Pruett
There are a ton of books about wrestling. Most of them have been written by or about specific wrestlers. They contain old grudges and/or corporate censorship (and in very lucky cases, both). They also often include the perspective of a person who could never quite separate themselves not only from the personalities involved, but from their own character. Wrestling books have largely fallen into the autobiographical genre. This book is a rare wrestling book. It is wrestling criticism, not a memoir.
David Shoemaker currently writes about wrestling for Bill Simmons' ESPN spin-off site, Grantland, and he formerly wrote the "Dead Wrestler of the Week" series for Deadspin, which spawned this book. Shoemaker, who goes my the pseudonym "The Masked Man," is already one of the best wrestling writers out there today on a very visible platform. With this book, he became the very best at what he does. He is writing about wrestling like no one ever has.
The Squared Circle is a remarkable combination of criticism, history, and delightful personality. Shoemaker attempts to tell the story of professional wrestling from its inception over 100 years ago to the modern era through wrestlers who have passed away. Each chapter is a tiny piece of a larger picture. Each chapter is essential to understand the era in wrestling and who was involved. It's a very unique way of telling the story.
With this uniqueness, there are downfalls. As I read the book, I wanted to talk about living wrestlers in more than just their proximity to the dead. I wanted to explore the careers of more of the biggest stars of all time without discussing the dead men they shared the ring with. There were points where binge-reading this book became downright depressing. Sometimes you don't want every chapter to end with a wrestler dying.
Another downfall is a lack of adherence to exact wrestling histories and timelines. In the eras in which I was a major fan, I saw quite a few as I read. I'm sure there were more. The main weakness of this book was the lack of a fact check from a wrestling historian. This would be a much stronger effort if it had been looked over a time or two. It also contains a little bit of a "winners write the history" bias when discussing the McMahon family, dating all the way back to Vince McMahon Sr.
The way Shoemaker writes helps one to cope with the depression of death. He tells stories about the art form of wrestling. These wrestlers are his devices and the stories all work together. Throughout the discussions of fallen heroes (and villains) he also has his own interludes. He uses these moments to educate the reading audience, to illustrate a larger idea, and sometimes to express a necessary point (such as the need for a union in wrestling).
One of the major strengths of this book is the way it educates the audience. I would feel comfortable handing this to a person who has only seen one wrestling match in their life and knowing they'd understand it. Shoemaker is careful to explain the ideas and terms many insider fans take for granted as their own special custom language. He is also careful not to talk down to an audience who may know less about wrestling (and not to talk down to a more knowledgable audience, either).
This is one of those books I'd actually encourage a wrestling fan to use when explaining why they love professional wrestling. It begins with a refutation of the idea that wrestling fans never knew wrestling was fake until the 1980's. It discusses how wrestling fans are in it for the art, not for the sport. It's a wonderful explanation of why wrestling, even in its staged nature, is worth loving.
Shoemaker, with this book, weaves together an incomplete (and mostly, but not completely accurate) history of professional wrestling remarkably well. He describes wrestling in a way most people can understand. He writes with a combination of respect for history and actual literary skill unseen in wrestling writing today. I definitely recommend reading this, reading it again, and maybe even rereading the occasional chapter for years to come.
The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling is available everywhere books are sold and in every format. You should pick up as a gift for the wrestling fan in your life (or to treat yourself).
Will Pruett writes about wrestling. He likes it. You should too. Feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or to follow him and interact on twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime.
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