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Levels of the Game Paperback – November 1, 1979
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“This may be the high point of American sports journalism.” ―Robert Lipsyte, The New York Times
“McPhee has produced what is probably the best tennis book ever written. On the surface it is a joint profile of . . . Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, but underneath it is considerably more--namely, a highly original way of looking at human behavoir . . . He proves his point with consummate skill and journalistic artistry. You are the way you play, he is saying. The court is life.” ―Donald Jackson, Life
“John McPhee's Levels of the Game . . . alternates between action on the court and interwoven profiles of the contestants. It is a remarkable performance--written with style, verve, insight and wit.” ―James W. Singer, Chicago Sun-Times
About the Author
John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Top Customer Reviews
"It has been thirteen years since an American won the men's-singles final at Forest Hills, and this match will determine whether Ashe or Graebner is to have a chance to be the first American since Tony Trabert to win it all. Ashe and Graebner are still amateurs, and it was imagined that in this tournament, playing against professionals, they wouldn't have much of a chance. But they are here, close to the finish, playing each other. For Graebner to look across a net and see Ashe--and the reverse--is not in itself unusual. They were both born in 1943, they have known each other since they were thirteen, and they have played tournaments and exhibitions and have practiced together in so many countries and seasons that details blur."
But McPhee is actually after bigger game than this one match. He also provides insightful portraits of the two very different contestants. Ashe, the only championship level Black tennis player of his time, is single, liberal, mercurial, a finesse player and a risk taker. Graebner is married with kids, conservative, religious, a power player and risk averse. McPhee demonstrates how their personalities influence, indeed shape, their play and how their lifelong rivalry lifts their games to higher levels when they play one another, ultimately lifting Ashe's game towards perfection by the end of this contest.
Ashe would go on to win the tournament, becoming the only amateur to win it in the Open era and together Ashe and Graebner lead the US to it's first Davis Cup in years. After that though, while Ashe went on to a respectable career, Graebner slipped into obscurity.Read more ›
It's on all the other levels that this is a great book --- one of the greatest you may ever read, period. First, because of the subject. Arthur Ashe was not the Jackie Robinson of tennis; when he emerged in the 1960s, he was the only African-American player of note in America. Clark Graebner was a dentist's son and a ringer for Clark Kent. As it happened, Ashe and Graebner were both best-of-breed. It's not inaccurate to say that they were friends. But you can't miss the notion that they are also archetypes: privileged white kid from Ohio vs. against-all-odds black kid from Virginia.
In a mere 146 pages, John McPhee --- you know his byline from a zillion profiles in The New Yorker, many of them mesmerizing, some beyond dull, but all meticulously reported and more carved than written --- has pulled off a literary coup. He has written an account of the match that's thrilling sports reporting. After, he clearly interviewed Ashe and Graebner at length, for he recreates what they were thinking and feeling at every key point in the match. And then he goes still deeper, talking to parents and wives, coaches and mentors, so he can deliver acute biographies of each player and a revelatory portrait of a sport --- and a nation --- in transition.
A mediocre writer would construct this book with long passages in italics. Or chapters that pull us out of the match and take us back to Virginia or Ohio.Read more ›
McPhee develops the two men as the opposite of each other: liberal v conservative, black v white, calm v emotional. And the narrative takes this another step. Just as the tennis ball bounces back and forth in a match, so does McPhee bounce back and forth between his two subjects, Ashe and Graebner, race and tennis. McPhee wants to draw a parallel between a person's background and their tennis-playing style, and for the most part, he succeeds.
As any reader of nonfiction knows, John McPhee writes perfect sentences, does unparalleled research, and crafts his books like a master carpenter. Levels of the Game has all these typical McPhee traits, is easy to read, and full of insight. On the other hand, by todays standards, the book is awkward. The shifts back and forth from Ashe to Grabner, from past to present, become jarring over time, and some of McPhee's sentences are unusually stiff and formal, almost academic.
Levels of the Game is a book about sports the way that Friday Night Lights Friday Night Lightsis a book about sports. It uses the game as a window into something else, an attempt to describe two very different men, and all that they represent in America in 1968.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
a great book if you're a tennis fan. mcphee is so good a writer he was able to get me to read 200 pages, 2/3 of a book, on the geology of california. Read morePublished 1 month ago by J. Klugman
Wow .. Another McPhee masterpiece!.. always a pleasant read ,( McPhee )
this one details the lives of two tennis greats and the US game itself comes into focus. Read more
The story attempts to contrast two persons of very different backgrounds (one poor black, one fairly privileged white) as the wrap-around of a tennis match between the two. Read morePublished 15 months ago by MDE
McPhee is routinely, and correctly, taught in creative writing courses, including at Princeton where he shares the creative writing teaching with Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, and... Read morePublished 16 months ago by SK
This book was assigned reading in my journalism course. I like tennis but it's not a sport that I am crazy about. Read morePublished 23 months ago by T. Mixon
One of the best sports books I've read. Deeply chronicles two tennis players; how the two players--and their tennis match--serve as fascinating metaphors for U.S. Read morePublished on August 21, 2014 by Peter Shaw