String Theory Summary and Review

by David Foster Wallace
Has String Theory by David Foster been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Do you ever wonder what is going through the mind of expert athletes during intense matches? Have you considered what it takes to make it to the courts of Wimbledon? If so, you’re not alone – many are fascinated by the intensely competitive world of tennis, where only the best and most cutthroat matches ever make it to live television. One unlikely fan of tennis was esteemed writer David Foster Wallace, who also was active in the tennis world. This book summary will show an inside look into this exclusive club from a brilliant and beloved literary mind. In this book summary, you’ll find out:
  • how sweating can improve your tennis game
  • how pro plater Federer sees a ball on the court
  • why sports memoirs can sometimes be a boring read

String Theory Key Idea #1: David Foster Wallace could serve more than good writing.

David Foster Wallace has become recognized as one of the most brilliant and talented authors of modern American literary fiction. Even so, his career could have easily taken a different path. In fact, Wallace actually was a competitively ranked junior tennis player before he was a writer. His nickname then was Slug, a backhanded compliment that came from his lazy and slow playing that could still smash his opponents. Wallace says that it was the microclimatethat he used to his advantage. Growing up in the middle of Illinois in a town even windier than Chicago, Wallace harnessed the power of the wind instead of trying to fight it. Wallace also used the winds while riding his pushbike around town, using his long, outstretched arms as sails to catch the wind. The residents of his town thought he looked crazy, but really he was just using the elements to his advantage. On the court, Wallace used the wind to his advantage. He knew that the other players were stronger and more technically proficient, firing off quick corner shots. So instead, Wallace lobbed his balls high, slow, and straight, letting the wind take over. Wallace’s second technique came from his sweat. He sweat – a lot. One wouldn’t normally think of high perspiration as a talent per say, but for Wallace, it worked wonders. He wouldn’t look pretty by the end of a clammy summer day, but with breaks for water and salty snacks, he could play on and on. Meanwhile, his sleek, preppy opponents tended to wilt away in the heat, and would even pass out. Wallace kept himself cool with his sweat, ready to keep with the game. He even referred to himself as a “physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat, [who] could play just forever.”

String Theory Key Idea #2: There’s no way to spin to it – Tennis pros don't come from nowhere.

Professional tennis is a tough, competitive world.  Only those in the top 100 around the world automatically qualify for tournaments and grand slams on the tennis circuit. For players ranked outside of the top 100, they must battle hard for the remaining spots. These events are known as the “quallies” and they occur before large tournaments and can be quite savage. These quallies are filled with players who are just outside of the top 100 ranking, as well as older players who are too broken down to make it back into the rankings. Sadly, there is an abundance of these lithe athletes who are stuck in this spot and can never rise above a “mediocre” of rankings. This can also mean a huge disparity of abilities on display, sometimes with even the 75thranked player in the world squashing the 180th. And the reward for making it through the quallies is being faced with the best in the world, players who are ready to wipe you out on the court. It’s not only the glamour of a large tournament that’s misleading to tennis players: the reality of making it to one of these tournaments is a rough fight, only after years of pain and sacrifice. While lives of these players may look glamorous, as they fly around from tournament to tournament and serve as spokespeople for watches and sports apparel, their high lives are hiding a harsher existence. The effort to get into the Top Five in the world cannot be simply understood. Smothered childhoods, unreasonable training agendas, restraint, precise diets, unable to take part in most of life’s joys. In short, they suffer, and endure this suffering to be one of the world’s greatest athletes, for our entertainment. When we watch them perform, we get to see their glory, and by seeing their dedication and passion, we share in the splendor.

String Theory Key Idea #3: It’s not a trick shot

If you think you’ve got the tennis skills, and if you think that if you only dedicated yourself to practice, you could be a professional? That you might be in the Top 100 players? Think again. Wallace says that’s a deluded way of thinking. It looks easy when we watch players on our screen, but the TV matches can’t possibly display the sheer abilities of the players. In person, players can move in stunning speed across the full expanse of a court in order to hit a ball. And even after that they need to have mastery over the speed and spin on the return. It’s also just exhausting; a three-set match uses just as much energy as playing a basketball game on a full-size court for four times as long. Towels and sweatbands become essential; they are not just for show. A gentle dabbing is actually soaking up sweat to ensure rackets don’t fling from slippery hands or players become blinded by sweat in their eyes. In addition to all this sweat-filled, energetic movement, professionals need expert vision. Actually, they use two types of vision at once. The one kind of vision is simply seeing and smashing the ball. But it’s more than that: you have to hit hard and accurately. This requires hand-eye coordination. Years of training makes this skill come as a second nature to the best players in the world. It’s like catching a baseball as it bounces unsteadily on the ground. Then imagine hitting that ball right back to where it came from, a spot far from you. Then repeat this for two hours. The second vision needed is peripheral vision. This is understanding where your opponent is at all times, where they are heading, and what shot you should take in order to take advantage of their court position.

String Theory Key Idea #4: Sports memoirs can be boring, but the best competitors must be boring in order to be great.

It’s a fact in the publishing world that memoirs by top celebrity athletes are fast-sellers. However, these memoirs are almost always lifeless and dull in content. This brings up the question: how can top athletes, with physical expertise and the pinnacle of the human condition, write such a driveling story? Additionally, what do us average folk think we can actually learn from the resonant depths of their minds? Wallace knew this problem well. At one time, he was addicted to sports memoirs. But this ended when he read a ghost-written autobiography of tennis legend Tracy Allen. It was so bland that dirt had more personality than her book. It was simply a retelling of her matches won, and it left Wallace deeply unsatisfied. Wallace draws the conclusion that we continue to read these memoirs despite this knowing this about the genre. That we read them because we think they will show us some kind of deeper truth about greatness and success. The books instead are filled with empty ideas, sports clichés and hollow mantras. Yet, this might be the point, Wallace says. In that, is the genius of the genre. Maybe the minds and lives of these top athletes are barren and empty. Perhaps that is what makes them so successful. With the gift of immense physical ability, they cannot afford to falter for even a second. If their focus drifts on anything but the game, they’ll begin to fail. Pro players are so esteemed because they can empty their minds and silence their internal thoughts that might feed them doubt and insecurity. They must do this in order to be successful. Think of what it must be like to play a tiebreak with every eye in the crowd watching you in hushed awe, with millions more at home. Nerves must be gone, and the mind must be focused. This is what all these athletes can attribute their success to. When athletes say the same cliché phrases again and again in post-match interviews (like taking a match “one point at a time”), it’s not just a vacant platitude in their mind. It’s a truth that they live by, and it ultimately leads to their success.

String Theory Key Idea #5: Federer is returning tennis to grace as he becomes a brilliant player.

It was much thought that the sport of tennis might be reaching a dead end. The old serve-and-volley style of play was done with, with both players running to the net to face off. Improved racket technology effectively ended this style of play. Now, the improved rackets lets players linger on the baseline, exploding balls across court with enormous power. Now, the rallies went on for what seemed liked forever. It was endless. This sort of impasse was put to an end by the emergence of one player: Roger Federer. In the face of fierce baseline smashers like Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal, traditional serve-and-volley players vanished, but Federer found a spot in the middle for himself. Essentially, Federer is quick and smart. He earns points by making his opponent run around the court. He can create an open space for himself while also pushing his opposition into tiny corners. Mix this skill with his agile reflexes, and we can begin to see just how he makes unthinkable shots that seem to come from nowhere. Even in a slow-motion replay, a viewer will still think, “How is he doing that?” Federer shows that despite the popular belief and commentary, tennis is not dead. Federer displays more than just a master technician at work. There is also a poetry in the gracefulness of Federer’s movement. It’s beyond a technical explanation. It’s similar to the way Michael Jordan played basketball, sometimes hanging in midair above the hoop, looking as if to defy gravity. Similarly, Federer looks as if he is defying the natural laws of the universe. Strange things happen when he is on court: his ball seems to look larger, faster, or seems to slow down to a snail’s pace. On TV, it’s hard to see this. In the stands, one can truly marvel at the way he plays. It is simply just a flash of brilliance, and for Federer, it brings an eternity of glory.

String Theory Key Idea #6: String Theory book summary in review

The key takeaway: Tennis is a breathtaking sport. It demands the highest level of strength and smarts from the best players. In return, players experience moments of incredible grace. The spectators are only the members of the congregation, witnessing a miracle. Actionable advice: Go out and watch a professional tennis match. If you can, attend a smaller match (like a qualifier) that allows you to be up close to the action. This way, you can experience the massive chasm that separates an average tennis player and the very best in the world.