The following is excerpted from the Prelude in The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong, published by Yellow Jersey Press, Random House. The book has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Award 2013.
During a summer some years ago our friend Rupert Sheldrake — the controversial philosopher of science — his wife Jill and their two boys, Merlin and Cosmos, paid us a visit. I gave the boys rackets and showed them a few strokes. It was instant karma: they were hooked. Back in London, they persuaded their father to buy them a table and he himself has become a player. Every time I went to visit them there were the inevitable ping-pong matches. I’d play for hours with both sons and with Rupert, too. It was fun and, surprisingly, also intellectually stimulating. There was something unusual about the essence of the game that escaped us. Eventually, after some speculative discussions about it, we realized what was intriguing us: the fact that ping-pong is strikingly non-Euclidean. I have kept a note that he sent me about it: “Euclidean geometry is the geometry of plain surfaces and three-dimensional space, but non-Euclidean geometry is the geometry of curved surfaces, hence it is indeed an appropriate term for this kind of ping-pong.”
What I took as an official confirmation of my ability as a player came six years ago, on a cruise ship. A ping-pong tournament had been organized. Half-hoping that this would happen, I had brought along my (still preassembled and seldom used) racket. I had just discovered that on a cruise three new factors further complicate the game: the rocking of the ship, the wind on deck, and the… margaritas. But the tournament was held while the ship was still docked; in a sheltered spot undisturbed by wind; and no alcohol was served on board while in port. The tournament turned out to be uneventful: no opponent gave me a hard time and I won.
So, even if I no longer owned a table and played rarely, ping-pong seemed to catch up with me constantly. By the time it did for good, it suited me all the more because meanwhile I had been cultivating the art of thinking unconventionally. During my university years first in Pavia then in LA at USC, between classes I’d go to one of the libraries on campus and read — avidly — the Encyclopædia Britannica at random. Everything interested me, but ultimately nothing satisfied me. Disappointed by the canon taught at school and broadcast by the media and the establishment, by the time I graduated I was already delving well beyond it. For years I’ve been exploring a different sort of knowledge. Sufism, for example, shows one how to escape from the “prisons of linear thinking.” And so, in different ways, do Taoism and Zen.
To illustrate an instance of escape from the “prisons of linear thinking,” I won’t use a passage from some ancient esoteric text, but a TV commercial for “Instant Kiwi,” a lottery scratch card from New Zealand — sometimes this kind of thinking hides itself in the most unsuspected of places…