String Theory by David Foster Wallace

Summary
  1. A compilation of DFW’s writings on tennis
Key Takeaways
  1. It can be amazing how early in life some writers figure out what they are and start to see their lives as stories that can be controlled.
  2. Tennis may be the most isolating of games. It may be as close as we come to physical chess, or a kind of chess in which the mind and body are at one in attacking essentially mathematical problems.
  3. I was at my very best in bad conditions – what truly sets the greats apart
  4. Tennis is chess on the run
  5. DFW’s biggest tennis asset was his “weird robotic detachment from whatever unfairness of wind and weather I couldn’t plan for.” He developed a sort of Taoist ability to control via noncontrol
  6. The Illinois combination of pocked courts, sickening damp, and wind required and rewarded an almost Zen-like acceptance of things as they actually were, on court
  7. “…if both guys are good enough so that there are few unforced errors to break up the rally, a kind of fugue-state opens up inside you where your concentration telescopes toward a still point and you lose awareness of your limbs and the soft shush of your shoe’s slide and whatever’s outside the lines of the court, and pretty much all you know then is the bright ball and the octangled butterfly outline of its trail across the billiard green of the court.”
    1. My whole time playing tennis was spent chasing this fugue-state
  8. On top athletes
    1. “Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way…Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
    2. “Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.”
    3. “Maybe what keeps us buying in the face of constant disappointment is some deep compulsion both to experience genius in the concrete and to universalize genius in the abstract. Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define, and true techne so rarely visible (much less televisable), that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound.”
    4. “The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all…This is, for me, the real mystery – whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither…”
    5. “It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”
    6. “The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then only unconsciously, i.e. by combining talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. In other words, serious tennis is a kind of art.”
    7. “…in many ways, professional athletes are our culture’s holy men: they give themselves over to a pursuit, endure great privation and pain to actualize themselves at it, and enjoy a relationship to perfection that we admire and reward (the monk’s begging bowl, the RBI-guru’s eight-figure contract) and love to watch even though we have no inclination to walk that road ourselves. In other words, they do it “for” us, sacrifice themselves for our (we imagine) redemption.”
    8. “Confidence is partly a matter of temperament and partly a function of hard work.”
    9. “But the radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art – something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.”
  9. It’s a sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one has given up for it
  10. “I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts.”
  11. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is a human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
  12. On Roger Federer – Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious
What I got out of it
  1. Able to relate to a lot of what he was saying due to my background playing tennis but I think anyone who has pushed themselves in the pursuit of mastery will be able to relate- the fugue state which comes when at the breaking point, no mindedness when in the midst of flow, the awe one feels when seeing a true master athlete in their prime