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Gentlemen's Blood

It is something of a triumph to write a funny book about an exercise which fairly often has resulted in death. Barbara Holland has accomplished the feat with "Gentlemen's Blood," her history of dueling. This is in part because Ms. Holland recognizes that for the writer, dueling, like any number of other activities, is less important in and of itself than it is as a potential window into the human condition. She finds in the bleeding hearts and rationalizing minds of duelists down the years clear evidence that we are a proud, foolish, self-deceiving, vicious, pompous, goofy lot occasionally capable of good sense and even chivalry.

Beyond that, Ms. Holland has a marvelously developed appreciation of the bizarre. She delights — and encourages us to delight — in the fact that duels have been fought in order to determine which of the two combatants was the better mathematician, and because two men disagreed over the pronunciation of a word. She tells of a duel between a man and a greyhound, and another fought between two men aloft in hot air balloons.

As part of this job, I look over a lot of books having to do with sports. Many of them are disappointing. Few of them are ambitious, educational, surprising, and very funny. "Gentlemen's Blood" exceeds even the promise its introduction offers, when Barbara Holland defends dueling as "an improvement over the informal ambush, or sending out henchmen to break the enemy's skull by night on the highway." This book is a joy.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.

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