Book: String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis

I love tennis. I love David Foster Wallace. And I needed a book on the couch day after a gruelingly long week where I started feeling better and then was flattened this morning by a few spoons of my yogurt and peach breakfast.

String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis was the second book I read today (the first was Dark Matter by Blake Crouch – more on that in another post) and it was delightful.

DFW was a tennis player and a pretty good one, especially as a junior player. If you’ve read Infinite Jest, you know that in addition to playing tennis, he is uniquely remarkable in how he writes about it.

String Theory was a collection of five prior long essays (or whatever the long essay equivalent of a novella is) about tennis. The first is about his childhood tennis experience titled Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley. Next is a delicious, curious, and sad essay titled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The meatiest story is the third one titled Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness. I could have read this one twice and still not milked all the juice out of it. I paused after it and got some pretzels to munch on.

Having been to the U.S. Open a half dozen times, I completely identified with Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open. And the I remembered reading the last essay – Federer Both Flesh and Not – when it was published in 2006 as Federer as a Religious Experience in The New York Times PLAY Magazine. It used the Federer / Nadal Wimbledon 2006 final as the backdrop for its focus on Federer.

Once again, the footnotes are often better than the essay/story, as DFW lets his hair down (such as it was) and really lets loose on what is going on – unfiltered – between his ears.

I loved this book. If you are a tennis player or fan, do yourself a favor and get String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (it’s only in hardcopy and worth reading the old school non-digital way.) If you are a DFW fan, you’ve probably already read it (if you haven’t, prioritize!)


Also published on Medium.

  • It’s a funny s port tennis. Funny in that much contemporary commentary is woefully behind the state of the modern game.

  • What’s your technique for reading so fast? Super big concentration? Do you listen to the audiobook?

    • 1. I read a lot. Practice.

      2. I read in blocks of time – I’m not distracted by other stuff. So – I get into a deep flow state when I’m reading.

      3. I’ve always been a fast reader ever since I was a kid. And I love to read for hours at a time.

  • Brett Amdur

    FYI for those interested, I think this actually is available electronically at Amazon, under the title “On Tennis: Five Essays”:

    https://www.amazon.com/Tennis-Essays-David-Foster-Wallace-ebook/dp/B00FPQA7BG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1471876158&sr=1-1&keywords=string+theory+david+foster+wallace#customerReviews.

    As best I can tell, the only difference is that the electronic version doesn’t include the intro by John Jeremiah Sullivan (but haven’t really looked at the paper version, so not positive about that).

  • Christopher Stone

    I read the the original essay “String Theory” about Micheal Joyce when it appeared in Harper’s Magazine, thus I thought that David Foster Wallace was a first rate sportswriter. A few years later I learned, when Infinite Jest came out, that he also dabbled in more “serious literature.” This essay has been described as the single greatest piece of sports writing extant. If you are deep into tennis, as I am, you will find this essay (along with the others to a somewhat lesser degree) infinitely entertaining.

  • Christopher Stone

    Sorry…String Theory was in Esquire Magazine, not Harper’s (which DFW also wrote for.)