On the back cover of most non-fiction books, the categories are listed stating what the book is about and in what Dewey Decimal section it can be found. Here, in Guido Mina di Sospiro’s The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong, we have an intriguing mix: “Metaphysics / Sports,” two categories that so rarely overlap. Now sure, there may be some naysayers out there leery of declaring ping-pong a sport, but watch ten seconds of any Olympic game and you’ll understand the insanity and acumen needed to play it. This mixed study, of sports on the one hand, with the emphasis on sheer physicality and sweaty perspicacity, and metaphysics on the other, with its emphasis on, well, sedentary contemplation, is great fun and does, as far as recent comparisons go, recall David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis. As best I can figure it, ping-pong is the eccentric raconteur’s version of tennis. At least in Mina di Sospiro’s telling.
While this book is about a lot of things, including pips, the crazy genius of the forehand loop, military theory, Taoism, and breaking free from “prisons of linear thinking,” it’s ultimately about community—a community created by people who otherwise wouldn’t interact, wouldn’t be in the same space or attend the same parties, but who, thanks to ping-pong, are brought together, however briefly, to bond, support, challenge, teach, and care about one another. Though we learn plenty of tangential tidbits from Mina di Sospiro, his most relevant lesson concerns this community and its importance to the human spirit.
We start with a reenactment of that primordial scene, the son usurping the father. Except this usurpation occurs upon a ping-pong table. Mina di Sospiro and his teenage sons, both of whom are usually “glued to their smart phones,” encounter a table during a family road trip and soon enough the arrogant father is felled. How could it be? And yet how could it be otherwise? Mina di Sospiro’s childhood passion for ping-pong gets reignited here, or rather a little while later, when his doctor encourages him to take up some physical activity to combat his high blood pressure and the general bodily decline that occurs in middle age. So begins our journey into a game that’s “at once cerebral and snappy, something like a four-dimensional puzzle that one has to solve with no time to think about it.”
This isn’t your hanging-out-in-the-basement variant of ping-pong. This is intense stuff. Mina di Sospiro traces the history of the sport to Victorian England, where it started off as a leisurely pastime and was occasionally known as “whiff-whaff,” before getting into the mind-bending physics of topspin, as topspin came to dominate the game in the 1950s and beyond, due in part to the introduction (though subsequent banning) of the sponge racket. Basically, according to Mina di Sospiro, ping-pong is an ever-evolving game, one even more sophisticated than tennis, that’s all about the “alchemical marriage of speed and spin.”
Using an academic framework of initiation rites, Mina di Sospiro charts his development as both a player and aficionado of “table tennis”—as it’s officially known in competitive play, where the International Table Tennis Federation serves as the governing body. Along this journey, we meet Mina di Sospiro’s community of likeminded lovers of the sport. There’s Emilio, a “Cuban literatus” in his late seventies who plays “as if glued to the table”; there’s Fadi, who thanks Mina di Sospiro for his sportsmanship by telling him a Sufi tale that gets thoroughly over-analyzed; and there’s Jaime, an economist who once played internationally and becomes a bit of a mentor. At the introduction of this word mentor, Mina di Sospiro goes on a typical tangent, relating the word’s etymology and considering the different types of teacher-student bonds. “A true teacher dislikes compromises,” he notes. Such tangents make up the better part of the book.
This is how the metaphysics get in. Through these tangents—about, for instance, von Clausewitz’s the “fog of war,” Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Golda Meir’s thoughts on humility—Mina di Sospiro introduces us to an array of insights. Everything becomes a teachable moment when ping-pong is involved! In the ninth chapter, “Metaphysicians and Empiricists,” Mina di Sospiro uses the debate over pips (pips are those little pimples on a racquet that define the kind of play that’s possible with it) to extrapolate about life. By drawing on Aristotle and Plato, as well as the pips, Mina di Sospiro reaches for a “great lesson” applicable “not only to table tennis but to life.”
And yet, no matter how far these tangents take us, we always return to the community of players whose company Mina di Sospiro so thoroughly enjoys. His renderings of his colleagues are generous if occasionally clichéd (“He had a lot to teach about table tennis—and even more about life.”). But the feelings are genuine, if never understated. This community seems to transcend those commonplace barriers that regularly divide us and allows for a weird sort of intimacy that is so poignant because of its limitations, because it is confined, more or less, to the ping-pong table and its environs, the community centers and clubs where the game is played with such devotion and ferocity.
Worth a read even if you don’t give a pip about ping-pong, this spirited little book is ultimately an oddball ode to loving something so much it becomes a defining part of your life, and to finding and creating spaces where you can share that love with strangers like you.