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Book Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, about various characters whose lives are interwoven by their university and its baseball team, was my book club’s last monthly selection, and it is my absolute favorite of our choices so far. I was hesitant about this pick. For one thing, it’s a hefty book at 515 pages and more importantly, it figures largely around baseball; I offer an explanation as to why this is a negative below.

No matter. After the first 50 or so pages I was enraptured. I read it around the holidays, and I had planned to allot my whole week at home in Los Angeles to read the novel, but I read half on the plane and eagerly gobbled up the remainder my first day in California. You need not like baseball to love this book. You can even kind of hate baseball. (Yes, it’s true. In my youth I was an expert Tee Baller on the faux San Francisco Giants. So what? It is such a slowwwww game, sorely lacking in the agility and grace of the game of baskets.)

It has been a while since I read a book that was such a traditional-feeling story, and a magnificently rendered one at that. True, it isn’t a third-person narrative, but it flows seamlessly from one character’s perspective to another, and the story unfurls at a perfect pace. The protagonists (there are several of them), are richly drawn and dramatic, but accessible. The relationships and the dialogue between the characters are realistic and compelling. It’s difficult to believe that this is Chad Harbach’s first novel. Perhaps my memory glosses over the rough edges, but I can’t remember once noting a superfluous part.

And I feel that though much of The Art of Fielding is laid out in no-nonsense but still very evocative prose, beautiful language is woven in throughout, and makes baseball (that slow, slow game), seem entirely poetic, as when Henry Skrimshander (one of the protagonists) is described as “low to the ground but light on his feet, more afloat then entrenched.”

In one part of the book, another protagonist, President Affenlight wonders, “Had he learned — would he ever learn — to discard the thoughts he could not use?” Perhaps not meant as such by the author, I thought of this mental query as the central question to the “art of fielding.” Much of what is described, and much of what plagues Skrimshander is his inability to shed the thoughts that interfere with his game. The art of life, as in fielding, is often in this struggle to “discard the thoughts” that do not serve us. Surely, it can never be done to even a modicum of perfection (for most of us average folk) and to berate ourselves for a failure to do so is to misunderstand what it is to be human. But it is a part of the work we do to live, to be happy, to field the struggles we encounter.

Please read The Art of Fielding. I would wager a bet that most of those who attempt it will be thrilled that they did. I can only hope that Chad Harbach has something else in the works and that it will not be a long time coming.

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