Saturday, June 23, 2018


Title:  Kicks:  The Great American Story of Sneakers
Author:  Nicholas Smith
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0451498119 / 978-0451498113

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It's gotta be the shoes."

Favorite Quote:  "For everything sneaker brands have done to get us to notice, choose, and stay loyal to them, our relationship to sneakers is still defined, ultimately, by what we do with them once we buy them. Sneakers might be worn every day or only for special occasions. They might be for sport or for style. They might be kept pristine in a box to be resold. They might be burned in a garbage can for social media to see. They might be loved or barely thought about. Even an identical show can have innumerable meanings depending on the wearer."

I know the brand names. I know the names of the athletes who market the brands. I know the quality of the shoes. I know my preferences. What I did not know was the history and the business that turned these household names into ... well ... into household names. Adidas. Converse. Nike. New Balance. Puma. Reebok. Vans. And others. Note that I list the brands in alphabetical order. No endorsement here. The choice of a shoe is a very personal although it is fascinating to read about the work that goes into influencing that choice.

The introduction to the marketing copy for the book reads, "A cultural history of sneakers, tracing the footprint of one of our most iconic fashions across sports, business, pop culture, and American identity." The "cultural history" defines the objective of the book. The book goes into materials, manufacture, and the science of design. The focus, however, is most definitely on the people and the societal factors that lead and follow the development of sneakers. The tongue in cheek use of "tracing the footprint" for me matches the tone of the book. The book presents a lot of research and a lot of facts. It does so, however, with a base in storytelling and a very easy and very quick to read conversational style. The "American identity" I find interesting because so many of the brands and so much of the history have origins outside of the United States. This book, however, is written perhaps for the American audience so it presents everything through that lens. Even though the brands may not be American, their prevalence in the United States is definitely a statement of culture.

Centering a history around the individuals responsible means there are a lot of names in this book. Many of them repeat and pop up at different points in the book. At first, I try to keep the names and personalities straight, until I realize that what I want to follow is the trajectory of the companies and the brands not necessarily the individuals. That focus is much easier because there are fewer brands than people and because the brand names are so familiar to me.

The book covers a lot of mileage. The impact of the rubber industry on sneakers. The competition between two brothers that gives rise to two major brands. The impact of World War II on the industry. The differences in brand association between different sports. The transition of a shoe into a statement of fashion and identity. The race to identify the next sports hero to then court them as a sponsor. Some of the history is dark - wages, factory conditions, affordability, and even murder. All in all, it is a fascinating look at the wide impact the industry has had and continues to have on American culture.

Who would have thought that someone would write a book about sneakers? Who would have thought I would choose to read it? Who would have thought that I would really like it? If you have an interest in the topic, I would recommend this very niche history book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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