How I Solved a Literary Mystery and Learned to Play Kickass Tennis while Coming to Grips with the Disorder of Things

Subjects: Literary Studies, Essay and Interview, Memoir
Ebook : 9780472221813, 300 pages, 6 x 9, July 2024
Paperback : 9780472056958, 300 pages, 6 x 9, July 2024
Hardcover : 9780472076956, 300 pages, 6 x 9, July 2024
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On writing, researching, and tennis

Table of contents

Author’s Note and Disclaimer
Prologue: June 26, 1984: Truth is the Widow
Part I. An Authentic Mystery
1. 21 Years Later: My Fathers’ Ghosts    
2. My Better Half           
3. Scholarly Detective Story I: Noticing Anomalies in the Lit-Crit Paradigm
4. Guns, Guard Dogs, and Yoga          
Part II. Pretty Ugly Rivalries
5. Midlife Athletic Crisis     
6. Scholarly Detective Story II: Identifying the Literary Mysteries To Be Solved     
7. Secondhand Existence     
8. Scholarly Detective Story III: Finding Clues in the Literature     
9. A Farewell to Love Handles     
10. Meetings with Unbearable Men     
11. Scholarly Detective Story IV: Discovering Primary-Source Historical Evidence (in My Wife’s File Cabinet)          
Part III. Fear and Doubting
12. The Spleen of Tennis     
13. Early-Life Crisis, 1968, Age 8      
14. Scholarship Lessons, 1983: Wednesdays with Michel (Foucault)     
15. Professional Blunder, Berkeley, 1986.     
16. Paralysis on the Court     
Part IV. The Lost-Out Generation
17. Scholarly Detective Story V: Hypothesizing Historical Revision and Searching for Proof
18. “Hitter’s Block”     
19. Why I Didn’t Die at Age 8     
20. Scholarly Detective Story VI: Examining the Historical Revision: Analyzing Discrepancies between Accepted Histories and New Evidence     
21. Is Zen for Real, or a Con?     
22. Smashing Through the Looking Glass
23. Scholarly Detective Story VI, continued: The Army’s “Inconsistent” Policy on Minorities     
24. Zen, Then Not Zen     
25. Scholarly Detective Story VII: The New Literary-Historical Synthesis      
Part V. The Mysterious Zone
26. The Big Wait     
27. My First Official Tournament as a Grown Man      
28. Going Outside My Familiar Discomfort Zone     
29. The Much-Needed Zen Master Doesn't Appear          
Part VI. Some Provisional Answers
30. Scholarly Detective Story VIII: Postscript: Seeing the Vietnam Era in Historical Context
31. Seeing Myself in Historical Context, Military History Convention, Ogden, Utah     
32. A Zen Master in Wrigleyville? 
33. Playing Tennis against Pilots and Matadors
34. Sweeping Myself Clean
35. Jekyll and the Dragon      
36. Coming Back to What We Love     


Firsthand is an exploration—both suspenseful and comic—of the creative process in research writing. The book takes the reader through the ins and outs of a specific research journey, from combing through libraries and archives to the intellectual challenges involved with processing information that contradicts established ideas. More fundamentally, it addresses the somewhat mysterious portion of the intellectual process: the creative and serendipitous aspects involved in arriving at a fruitful research question in the first place.
Keith Gandal combines this scholarly detective story with a comic personal narrative about how a midlife crisis accidentally sent him on a journey to write a research monograph that many in his profession—including at times himself—were dubious about. While researching how Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner faced their forgotten crises of masculinity, Gandal discovers that his own crisis is instrumental to his creative process. Incorporating stories from Gandal’s comic romp through the hyper-competitive world of middle-aged men’s tennis, adopting pitbulls, and discussing Michel Foucault, Firsthand gives readers an inside look at how to acquire accurate knowledge—about the world, about history, and about oneself.

Keith Gandal is Professor of English with a Joint Appointment in American Studies and Creative Writing at The City College of New York. 

“Gandal vividly captures the emotions he experienced during a difficult research and writing project. An excellent read full of humor and intellectual and emotional depth. Anyone who is a writer or a want-to-be writer will appreciate this book.”

- Nancy Gentile Ford, author of Americans All! Foreign-born Soldiers in World War I

“This is a remarkable book. If the reader can survive having their consciousness deconstructed in the first few chapters, then they can settle in to enjoy every word. Truly original. The persona of the narrator resonates with an American tradition of the paranoid, ironic, self-reflexive voice. Is this academic memoir, detective fiction, cultural history, or comic novel? Actually it is all of these.”

- Gavin Jones, author of Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity

“A fascinating ‘whodunit’ by a writer tracking other writers―and himself―through the labyrinth of the writing life, Firsthand gives us an entirely new, continually surprising perspective on the scholar’s vocation.”

- Eric Sundquist, author of Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America

“If you can only read one book this season about Michel Foucault, the Lost Generation writers, the mobilization of American troops during World War I, the mid-life crisis of a male academic, getting new pets, and the mendacious world of amateur tennis, make this the one.  Keith Gandal’s memoir traces his own journey to make the subtle but necessary psychic shifts on the road to uncovering truths hidden in plain sight—about other writers, scholars and himself.  It is all told in an engaging, headlong pace that reaches a memorable climax. I couldn’t put it down.”

- Daniel Andries, Senior Producer, WTTW