James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Remember Little "Butterstick" ?

    America's favorite panda is all grown up and back home. Out of quarantine too!

    Five years ago, Tai Shan the infant panda was the cuteness king of Washington. Now he's all grown up, back home in China, and looking like this:


    This picture, and many more on this Facebook page, come courtesy of Pandas International, which has been doing wonderful work for a long time in supporting the panda centers and habitats in China. A description of their work here in the magazine, from 2007. They deserve your support.

    Also via PI, the Chinese news video of Tai Shan when he was coming out of health quarantine, after his journey from the Washington DC birthplace, early this spring. If you watch even the first 15 seconds you'll get to hear the reporter saying, "Tai Shan -- Ni hao!" Later (I believe) they discuss how quarantine time has eased the new arrival's adjustment to Sichuan food and the distinctive Sichuan dialect (!). By the end of the clip Tai San has been released from his quarantine cage and is prowling around his enclosure, and a sponsor announces a big birthday party for him on July 9.

    The role of ABCs, or "American Born Chinese," has been important or at least interesting in China's modern evolution. Tai Shan now joins that group. Think of his birthday this coming week. Happy Independence Day, Tai Shan!
  • Last Words (for now) on Flying Cars

    If only we had a little more glyptonium, everything would be OK.

    Most recently here and here. The all-purpose dispositive statement on the subject from reader RJ:

    Of course the Terrafugia isn't the answer - how can it be if it is not also a boat!

    There is some modest hope in this direction -- the Icon A5. It's more a flying boat that also has wheels, but still:

    And, the secret ingredient required for a successful flying-car system, from reader PO:

    When I was in architecture school I had a graphic design business for beer money. One day an earnest engineering student came in wanting a brochure made for his flying car company. He wanted to pay in stock instead of cash.

    Remembering that the lawyer who handled Henry Ford's battle against the Selden Patent was paid in stock, which allowed him to switch careers from attorney to philanthropist, I thought, "what the hell," and did the brochure. But I told my roommates, "this will never fly. If you think traffic jams are bad in 2 dimensions, just imagine rush hour in 3 dimensions. The death rate will kill the idea as soon as it's tried."

    Even if flying cars could be built of glypsite* and powered by glyptonium**, the idea that the mass use of flying cars would not create aerial havoc is not really believable. Oh, the insurance rates!
    * glypsite was a fictional material devised by the architecture students--it was transparent, weightless, with infinite structural capacity at infitesimal dimensions. Our standard response to the professorial question of "and how would you build that?" was "We'll use glypsite!"

    **glyptonium is the energy analogue to glypsite.
    And for the many readers who have helpfully pointed out that flying cars are not the ideal solution to world environmental problems -- yes, yes, I know. Thus my enthusiasm for the new solar-powered airplane out of Switzerland and the Paris Green Air Show! (Also here.) For another time. And, after the jump, one final perspective, from a reader who thinks that we're unfairly maligning the usefulness of the Terrafugio Transition.

    More »

  • The Case for McChrystal: An Insider Speaks

    The argument that Stanley McChrystal's departure will keep the U.S. stuck in Afghanistan even longer

    I was early among those arguing that, after the Rolling Stone article, General Stanley McChrystal really had to go. This, I argued, was a matter of civilian-military relations, rather than necessarily to do with his conduct of the war.

    Recently I spoke with a US-policy insider who argued that (notwithstanding the "war is bigger than any one person" principle) McChrystal's depature would turn out to be be a huge setback for the U.S. This was the case even though he had been replaced by America's most celebrated current military leader, David Petraeus. The elements of this argument, from least to most compelling:


    1) Relationship with Karzai. According to this analysis, the president of Afghanistan likes and trusts McChrystal -- but is on bad terms with virtually every other prominent US civilian or military official. This sounds like Karzai's problem rather than ours, but: OK, point noted.

    2) Rules of Engagement. Within the US military, the most controversial part of the McChrystal-blessed COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy is that U.S. troops should expose themselves to more risk, as part of minimizing "collateral damage" to civilians in Afghanistan. The point, obviously, is not to endanger the U.S. troops; it is to protect the local civilians in all ways. McChrystal, himself a famously fit and fearless Special Forces warrior, had the best chance of selling this policy to troops. Civilians and an "intellectual" commander like Petraeus would be less effective.

    3) The Timetable. To me, this is the big issue. My insider-source said: "McChrystal had committed himself to this bargain. Last December, Obama agreed to a buildup. This December there would be a reality check. If the policy wasn't working then" -- by this account -- "McChrystal would agree that it was time to back out. The strategy would have been given a chance, and if it wasn't working, Obama would be able to clean house -- military and civilian officials alike -- and begin a withdrawal." Now, by this analysis, all commitments are off. Petraeus has no comparable commitment to the December re-assessment, and he is for all practical purposes un-fireable. So there is no natural break-point for the U.S. commitment ahead. My source, by the way, had been hopeful last year that the commitment to Afghanistan would "work"; he no longer feels that way.

    I present this as an informed argument rather than a view I am endorsing in all details. Point #3, convincing on its face, suggests that the whole situation may be a tragedy far beyond its effects on McChrystal. And it's a reminder why civilians and the press should hold Obama to his original deadline. The strategy is bigger than one man, after all.

    Update: Stipulating, as before, that (a) I am not an expert of Afghanistan and (b) my instinct has been to curtail rather than expand America's commitment there, I note this by Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists yesterday:

    Counterinsurgency forces stand little chance of defeating the insurgents without large numbers of troops, but the presence of foreign troops inevitably excites nationalist hostility from the local population; the more foreign troops there are, the more hostility there will be. Also, the more troops there are, the more military casualties there will be, and this undermines support for counterinsurgency at home--as we are now seeing in the UK and the U.S.
  • How Did I Miss This? (Competition for China Daily Dept)

    The next time you ask yourself, "I wonder what the Chinese government would say about today's news," there will be a way to find the answer

    If you have felt shortchanged on news with an Official Chinese Government perspective, relief is at hand! Yesterday Xinhua ("New China") News Agency launched its worldwide English TV network.


    We lose Larry King, yet we gain Xinhua. There is a balance to life's patterns. Indeed, the connection is closer than that: Xinhua TV will be available on US cable systems late this fall, at just the time we are dealing with Larry K's departure. " 'Congratulations on the start of a most exciting venture. We wish you well and welcome Xinhua to the family of international news broadcasters,' Steve Capus, president of NBC News, said in a letter." He speaks for us all.

  • More on Privacy in the "Everything Is Public" Age

    Maybe the digital generation is adapting better to living in public than their predecessors can imagine

    Previously here and here. Context is whether and how the conceptions of privacy will change when all email and social media can be archived and retrieved at will. Two reader replies. First, on the positive side:

    I think that an interesting angle around your Avatar post is the historical use of pseudonyms from the Federalist Papers to George Keenan writing as X in Foreign Affairs. It makes me wish that I was in college right now because I'd love to write that paper.

    Now, on a sort-of positive side too, from a reader roughly age 30:

    I'm writing to disagree in part with the "end of innocence" discussion re:Dave Weigel and anonymity. I certainly think that this will make very particular behaviors - e.g. participation in assumed-off-the-record listservs - more salient for the very particular population that is actually paying attention or personally knows the injured/injuring parties (DC journalists, bloggers, activists). But ultimately, despite the ability of this group to create a lot of commentary on this issue, it's a pretty inside-baseball/echo-chamber effect. There are some several hundred thousand folks party to this discussion (which can seem like a lot when many of them have blogs) but of course, that's ~.1-.4% of the US population.

    I think that instead, most folks will continue as they have before. And what my research on privacy and disclosure issues online has found is that young people are actually more aware of the effects of privacy and disclosure than older folks online (a group that includes me as well as you). That they still disclose more is not due to a Zuckerbergian/Utopian set of assumptions (for the most part, they're creeped out by that way of thinking) but due to weighing the costs and benefits of living in public and making decisions on what's worth it. Of course these decisions will be made with the same decision-making processes that decide the rest of their actions - as in, not-fully-developed. But a DC journalist losing his job won't change that.

    Last, I'll also take issue a bit with the idea that "It turns out not really to be true that if everything is on the record, nothing can be embarrassing." While that may be true in the long run, we don't actually have enough information to make this judgment yet. For instance: we know what was said in Weigel's embarrassing emails, but we don't know what was said that led to their being leaked. If as seems likely this was part of a coordinated campaign to smear Weigel - for whatever reason - then that context might not fully ameliorate his intemperance but it would put it in a larger picture of DC insider political combat.
  • A Thought Experiment: Technology Meets the Great Wall

    Readers want to know: can you really see the Great Wall from space? There's a way to find out.

    A reader in Australia writes with a problem:

    So, supposedly, the Great Wall of China is visible from space. But apparently it's not. Recently, I've discovered that both sides claim credibility (rather than one being an urban legend like the slowly boiling frog). I want to know if it's true.

    The tallest and widest part of the wall is 9.1m wide (tapered to 3.7m) and 8m high. It's 6400km long, but much of that is significantly thinner than 9.1m. (According to Wikipedia).

    Anyway, would such an object be discernible with the unassisted eye, on a clear, cloudless, pollutionless day, from Low Earth Orbit (2000km), or Geostationary Orbit (26000km) or somewhere in between (say 12000km)?

    The most plausible answer I've been given is that you can see the Wall in the sense that because it's such a long continuous feature, especially with the correct shadow conditions, you can easily ascertain where it is if you know it's there somewhere. However, there was some debate as to whether this counted as 'seeing' - if an adult human that knew nothing about the Wall were in a shuttle looking out the window, would they go "Oh hey look! A wall!"?

    The Great Wall, in Gansu province, not from space but from ground level.

    GansuWall.jpgThanks to the Miracle of Technology, there is actually a way to answer this question beyond a reasonable doubt in the comfort of your home. I'll mention it as an aside in a day or two. Determining the truth of the boiling frogs was more difficult.  

  • Google, China, and the First Amendment: A Strange Coincidence

    A long-planned campaign comes at an odd time for Google

    American users who log onto Google.com today will see an unusual ad-promo line beneath the normal search box. It talks about the First Amendment and steers users to a site called "1 for All." Google.com home page today:


    Close up view:

    Evan Osnos of the New Yorker -- a good friend, a gifted reporter and writer, an example of the promising future of journalism, and anything else positive one would like to say (capable linguist, too) -- reported just now from Beijing that it is hard to believe that such a message is mere coincidence, coming at a time of Google's intensifying struggle with the Chinese government on free expression.

    If it were not 3:45am in Beijing as I type, I would be able to talk with Evan there and say that, by improbable chance, I happen to know first hand that the timing is coincidental, rather than being a deliberate harpoon in the Chinese government's side. (I have sent him emails to this effect; presumably we'll be in touch in a few hours. By the way, except for this detail, every other part of the analysis in his column rings true to me.) Here's how I know:

    In my recent cover story about "Google and the News," I mention a speech that Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, gave to the American Society of News Editors in Washington in April. I was at the speech, and along with the several hundred others in the audience I saw the presentation that occurred just before Schmidt took the stage. It was a very strong pitch for a public-awareness campaign about the First Amendment called "1 for All," which would be launched on July 1 (today). Background on the effort is here; the main idea, at a time when the news industry is having woes of every sort around the world, was to enlist big companies and big names to remind Americans of the importance of a viable free press. The campaign's promoters were asking American newspapers, broadcast stations, ad agencies, etc to donate time and space to the messages in July.

    The tone of Schmidt's message to the editors, as I reported, was "we're all in this together." Ie, that Google felt it had a long-term interest in the viability of the press. Consistent with that outlook, when the "1 for All" presentation was over, I heard Schmidt tell some associates from Google that he wanted them to look into lending support to the campaign. Apparently the plan went ahead; Google is listed as one of the "Friends of 1 for All" at the 1-for-A site. 

    Now it's July -- which also turns out to be the moment when Google's confrontation with the Chinese government reaches a new decision point. The official Google announcement of the campaign does say: "At a time when restrictions on speech are increasing around the globe, we think it's essential to remind ourselves that we can't take freedom of expression for granted." So, the implications of any stand for press freedom obviously challenge the Chinese government's view. But for those following the Google-China struggle, this is indeed that improbable thing -- genuine coincidence -- rather than a deliberate escalating step. And in any case, the momentum toward escalation seems powerful enough on its own.
  • The Heartbreaking Truth About Flying Cars (updated)

    What -- you mean, we're not actually all going to be zooting around like the Jetsons?

    I mentioned yesterday that the Terrafugia Transition has passed an FAA hurdle toward going gotten FAA approval and can go on sale. Perhaps I should have been a little bit more obvious in indicating that I don't really think this is the answer to America's future transportation needs. Nor even the best indicator of America's overall psychic health. In the interest of explicitness, and for others who might have been in doubt, here's a response from someone who works for a large aircraft company based in Seattle, on why the Jetsons' air-car vision will (sob!) probably never become reality:

    Every principle of engineering leads to one inescapable conclusion about a flying car, or "roadable aircraft": it can ONLY be a lousy example of both. The practical reality is, you can have a crap car, and a crap airplane, for five times the money and ten times the chance of dying from sudden impact.

    IMHO, this particular pursuit can only be evidence of American greatness IF you think techno-triumphalism without foresight is a great thing. Americans love cars because they associate them with "freedom" in a quasi-religious fashion. But look at the unintended consequences of happy motoring: the astounding wealth squandered on the doomed project of suburbanization, and the paving of the American West.

    Suppose we were able to build a Blade Runner-esque hover-car that runs on magical cheap biofuel made from lawn clippings? Every alpine meadow, mountain lake, canyon rim, and forest vale would be colonized by fat "extreme suburbanites" who would fly to and from their "green" modular McMansions.

    Dude: walkable cities connected by mass transit.

    * P.S. As an avid paraglider pilot, I wince at the "Maverick" para-car. Once you understand that rudderless paragliders have no cross-wind landing capacity, and the wing-loading of that size canopy dictates a landing speed in excess of 30mph, you realize that the roll cage is there for a reason...

    Below: images of the Maverick mentioned above. Below them: image of an airplane from a large aircraft company based in Seattle.

    UPDATE: My large-aircraft-company correspondent says he was actually talking about a different Maverick flying car, from this site and immediately below. The two pictures after that are the Maverick that he didn't have in mind. But still an adventure! First, the "right" Maverick:

    Now, the "other" Mavericks:




  • If You're Going to Read Only One Thing About the Kagan Hearings...

    How to understand the confirmation hearings -- with a literary air

    ... well, as the old joke goes, you really should be reading more.

    But if you wanted just one place to turn for a combination of legal insight, narrative drama, political savvy, and yuks, that place should be this week's columns by law professor / novelist / ex- political journalist / historian Garrett Epps, on our site. If you start with the latest column, you'll probably want to work your way back.

  • Lessons From Nader: How Not to be a Bully-Coward

    On what "niceness" in criticism means

    Two days ago my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned a lesson-of-the-ages I had passed along when he and I talked recently. Short version: don't write things about people you'd be afraid to tell them in person. This was of course tied to the episode of leaked email from David Weigel, formerly of the Washington Post. Let me say a little more about this, in full wisdom-of-the-ages mode having nothing to do with the current flap, because it took me a while to grasp the whole point.

    When it comes to catty remarks involving friends or relatives, this is just a matter of  prudence and realism. If a "conscience" is the sneaking sense that somebody may be watching, proper email hygiene is the sense what you write to one person is going to end up... God knows where. Including in front of the person you least want to see it.

    Ralph Nader 1970 1.jpg

    The point about intentional, in-writing criticism is a little different. When I was in college I worked on a project for Ralph Nader, long before his days as a presidential candidate.  One evening he gave me his own graybeard lecture, from his venerable position as a man who had reached his mid-30s. (A picture from those days at left, though not by me.) He said that a really unattractive personality type was the journalistic bully-coward. That is, the person who breathes absolute fire when sitting at the keyboard, but skulks away nervously if he catches sight of someone he'd so fearlessly denounced from the writer's chair. Yes, this kind of person existed even before the blog age!

    This obvious part of the message was: think about how you write. But the other part was: think about how you are. Nader very definitely did not mean that you should never criticize people harshly or in writing. He meant (to shift ethnic registers -- his background is Lebanese) that you should be a mensch about it. Minimize the gap between "to your face" versus  "behind your back" discourse. Be willing to encounter people you've criticized. 

    No one fully eliminates the gap. Not many normal people enjoy the face-to-face meetings with those they've said harsh things about -- Andrew Sullivan's account of House of Commons-style verbal-combat kabuki notwithstanding. But I think both halves of that Nader recommendation are useful. Write as if you might run into the person afterwards. And when you run into people, be comfortable owning up to what you've said and where you disagree.*

    * This model doesn't hold me back from criticizing people -- with one exception. I've reached the point where I won't write a book review unless I like the book. If I think a book is bad, I'll just say: Sorry, I don't want to write about this one. Creating any real book is hard and represents a significant effort and gamble on the author's part. Unless it's a dangerous piece of agitprop, or unless it's being widely praised for reasons I consider crazy, it's just not worth it to me to go through the exercise of saying how and why I think it falls short. Enough other people will do that; and besides, authors never forgive bad reviews. On the other hand, it's always worth criticizing public officials. That's part of the basic bargain in their line of work, and the consequences of what they do matter.
  • Who Says America Is In Decline? (Flying Car Dept)

    The Terrafugia Transition realizes the Jetson dream

    Several times over the years -- mainly here and here -- I've argued that the clinching evidence that America is great is the long-sought development of a flying car. And it's not just me! Lane Wallace and Conor Friedersdorf have also noticed on our site this good omen for the future.

    Now the FAA has gotten into the act, waiving a weight-rule requirement toward approval of the Terrafugia Transition as a "Light Sport Aircraft." I think the "mood of America" polls will turn around shortly.


    In the air, above; on the road, below.


  • Google and China: The Two Big Unknowns

    Two ways to figure out whether the result will be win-win-win or lose-lose-lose.

    How will the latest round of the Google-Chinese government showdown end? (Google's announcement from last night here; other Atlantic interpretations here and here.)

    Honestly, it is impossible to know. That is because each side faces a big choice.

    On the Chinese government side, the question is: Do they have any incentive to step back from the brink and accept Google's cosmetic change as a real change of heart or behavior? Google's cosmetic change, in essence, is to stop automatically routing users from the Chinese mainland site Google.cn to the (uncensored) Hong Kong-based site Google.com.hk. Instead, the mainland home page will now have a link which users must click to be taken to the Hong Kong site. Although the results Google gives on the Hong Kong site are not "filtered," they must pass through the Chinese "Great Firewall" on their way back to users in the mainland.

    If the Chinese government is looking for a way to resolve the fight, play nice internationally, reduce complaints that it is becoming a hostile environment for foreign businesses, etc, it could decide to view this step as "compliance" with Chinese law. But if, on the other hand, the government is looking for a way to rub Google's nose in the consequences of its defiance and generally assert its refusal to be swayed by outside tut-tutting, it could decide to look through the ruse and revoke Google's license to operate in China, which is due for renewal very soon. (Below: the new Google.CN home page, with link to Google Hong Kong.)


    On Google's side, the question is: if it comes to an all or nothing choice about operating in the Chinese market -- "all" meaning genuine compliance with Chinese censorship laws, "nothing" meaning pulling out altogether -- are they prepared, really, to close down all their operations? All 500+ engineers in the mainland? All of the advertising, mobile, and other business operations that have little directly to do with search? When Google first announced this decision, it appeared they could have it both ways: international acclaim for taking a stand for free expression, but still a significant premise in the fastest-growing information market on earth. If they have to choose, which way will they go?

    At the beginning of this controversy I quoted a friend in China who said that this could end up as a "win-win-win" situation, for Chinese Web users, Google, and China's technological development -- or "lose-lose-lose," depending on subsequent steps. As a betting man, I am now leaning toward lose-lose-lose. But it will depend on the way these two questions turn out.

  • Excellent Interactive Oil-Spill Map

    A governmental map for tracking the effects of and response to the BP spill

    Via the federal government's Environmental Response Management Application, from NOAA, a powerful interactive map that lets you add and subtract layers to show areas closed to fisheries, beaches where oil has hit and is expected, emergency-response centers, satellite images of the spill, visible slicks, etc. You can zoom in and out and pan the map all around.


    If you zoom in, you can get very detailed images -- for instance this of the coast and delta region east of New Orleans.


    The occasion for this display is unbelievably depressing, but the imagery and presentation demonstrate a "Gov 2.0" approach to interactive use of geospatial imagery at its best. The map seems sufficiently detailed and configurable to be of real practical value to people in the region. Thanks to SSS and reader WRM in Louisiana.

  • "Avatar" Life in the Digital Age

    When everything is on the record, how do you create a new zone of privacy -- or discretion?

    I mentioned recently, in light of the turmoil over the WaPo reporter fired because of leaked  emails, that this could be the end of innocence for a generation accustomed to living in public. It turns out not really to be true that if everything is on the record, nothing can be embarrassing. "Will S," a college student whose real identity I know, writes to describe the way he has prepared for this new reality:

    The most interesting part of the "anything you write will inevitably become public" reaction is that it falls exactly in line with Mark Zuckerberg's [of Facebook] panned* comments about the end of privacy. Essentially, we have come close now to placing all written work (save handwritten diaries) into the public sphere. Jefferson and Adams famously began to preserve their letters as they (supposedly) came to realize the historical value of what they wrote; how long until e-mail inboxes are archived, to be opened 50 years later?

    When I first started into social media, on Wikipedia, I made a set of deliberate decisions about what would be "[his real name]" (wikipedia, Facebook, blog, twitter, tumblr) and what wouldn't be, written under a pseudonym (social media site, Daily Kos, RedState). As a result, I have created two online personas of written work that aren't essentially different people - and because I can't trust that they won't be dug up someday (even the fake name), neither of the accounts is actually "me," but instead only aspects. The pseudonym, for example, is much more willing to be opinionated.

    My existence on the internet might be with my real name, but my suspicion is that the vast majority of people are creating Avatars of themselves on the internet, untagging Facebook photos and writing blog posts to fit the image they wish to project. Weigel is jobless because he chose not to maintain the avatar.

    * I wrote back to say that I thought Zuckerberg had been justly panned, since he had arranged Facebook with a "nudge"-style bias toward making, tricking, or luring people into revealing more about themselves than they really should. "Will S." replied

    Zuckerberg: Certainly tasteless in terms of Facebook's policy approach of making more stuff public by default, and making some info impossible to hide.

    I would agree that privacy should be the default, despite the monetary incentives to choose otherwise. Facebook has a responsibility, especially since reactions are muddled given our lack of a established electronic etiquette...

    It's also bound up in that trust used to be opt-in; finding out someone's preferences and personal background had to be accomplished by hearing from people individually. Now that we post those things online where they can be shared universally without effort, to deliberately withhold them is a different message of mistrust that we may not feel comfortable sending out. I'm not sure where this market force will lead.

    Lastly, I don't know if we want to protect these spaces - electronic communication are already cold and prone to misunderstanding; perhaps it's best to encourage face to face Skype, iPhone, etc. conversations as the definite vehicle for private talks (medium = message, etc). But that leaves out the historic long letter - now relegated to e-mail, where heartfelt messages of emotion and more standard communications like this one are put in the same medium. We still need a paperless way to be formal.
  • Wimbledon Reading

    David Foster Wallace on how the game looked up close

    I mentioned several days ago how completely different it is to see pro tennis players in person, versus watching them on TV. A reader writes to remind me that the late David Foster Wallace insisted on this point in two of his most justly-famed pieces about tennis. 

    His best-known tennis article was this one, four years ago in the NYT Magazine, about the unique beauty and intelligence of Roger Federer on the court. That's worth reading again during Wimbledon. It makes me regret that I've never seen, and probably will never see, in-person Federer play singles in his prime. (Unusual live doubles viewing here, and below.)

    Thumbnail image for IMG_5044a.jpg

    But if anything, this article, from ten years earlier in Esquire, is even more interesting about the almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else. In this piece Wallace describes the first time he'd ever seen professionals in person. He had been a serious junior player, and he says that from watching TV he thought he might be able to hit with some of the lesser pros. The article chronicles his discovery, at a satellite/qualifying tournament featuring players he had never heard of, that he was wrong. Sample:

    If you've played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn't. And television doesn't really allow you to appreciate what real top-level players can do -- how hard they're actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area seventy-eight feet away over a net, hard. He can do this something like more than 90 percent of the time. And this is the world's seventy-ninth-best player, one who has to play the Montreal qualies.

    Both articles stand up very well. The Esquire one also has charming time-warp notes like, "Agassi, who is twenty-five," and, "Pete Sampras [then age 24] is mostly teeth and eyebrows in person and has unbelievably hairy legs and forearms -- hair in the sort of abundance that allows me confidently to bet that he has hair on his back and is thus at least not 100 percent blessed and graced by the universe." Thanks to reader RG in Tokyo.


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



From This Author

Just In