The problem with rowing books — forget for a moment that hardly anyone cares about rowing — is that they are so much alike. It’s almost impossible to avoid Mystical Rowing Mumbo Jumbo: the triumph of the human spirit; the ego sublimated to the common goal; and the ineffable je ne sais quoi of moving oars through water. “[T]he lonely condition upon the river was a true condition,” Mark Helprin wrote in his 1981 short story, “Palais de Justice.” In that story an impromptu sculling race on the Charles becomes — of course — a metaphor for life.
Once the rowing scribes dip their pens in the hallowed reservoir of Mumbo Jumbo, the purple prose flows nonstop. The eight oarsmen and a coxswain in a college crew “somehow became one thing,” Daniel James Brown writes in “The Boys in the Boat.” He continues: “[A] thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that . . . It was a rare thing, a sacred thing, a thing devoutly to be hoped for.”