IN PRAISE OFATHLETIC BEAUTY
by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Belknap Press, 263 pages, $22.95

One definition ofa valuable experience is any experience that you've never had before. In thatsense, reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is indeeda valuable experience. A professor of comparative literature at Stanford,Gumbrecht decries the fact that "sports as a social or a culturalphenomenon is at best a marginal topic" in academia. His peculiar book isnot likely to change that, but there are two reasons to consider reading it.First, it is at times as hilariously surreal as a Monty Python sketch--such aswhen Gumbrecht asks, in all seriousness, What can German writer Heinrich vonKleist's essay on 19th-century puppets teach us about sports? And second,because Gumbrecht has eye-opening ideas on the transformative power ofathletics--how, for example, a sumo wrestler, the most undignified andungraceful of athletes outside the ring, can suddenly become the embodiment ofdignity and grace inside it. Reading Gumbrecht is like sitting in the classroomof a kooky but brilliant professor: When you finally stop making fun of him,you realize that you've learned something interesting.

PHOTOMEL LEVINE