The backstory: The New York Times named The Art of Fielding one of the five best fiction books of 2011.
The basics: The Art of Fielding is the story of Westish College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. The main characters include three members of its Division III baseball team, the college's president, and his daughter.
My thoughts: Going into The Art of Fielding, I was curious how much baseball would be its focus. I grew up a huge sports fan, as all of my family still is, but I've distanced myself from following current sports. I still have a love and appreciation for them, and continue to find myself drawn to books and films that feature sports. I have a special soft spot for baseball after spending one of the best summers of my life interning at the Baseball Hall of Fame's Research Library. I appreciated the baseball scenes in The Art of Fielding, but I appreciated the college aspect more. While this novel will certainly appeal to baseball fans, I found the most compelling storylines to take place off the field. (A note to the non-baseball fans: the beginning is all baseball, but persevere.)
One reason this novel will appeal to non-baseball fans too is Harbach smartly included a main character who does not enjoy baseball. It's a lovely narrative tool to counteract the characters who often cannot see beyond the diamond. While it would be easy to dub The Art of Fielding as either a baseball novel or a coming of age novel, I think both do it a disservice. It is a novel rich in character and plot, but it's also a novel filled with wisdom. I highlighted 32 passages as I read. Harbach sneaks in nuggets of characterization like this one, "She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights," that left me breathless. (The historical story it came after was fantastic, albeit sexist.)
With so much I loved in this novel, the characters, the setting, the academia, and the influence of sports in Midwestern college life, I struggled with one particular storyline. As I've pondered whether it's me or the storyline, I think it might be a bit of both. I understand what Harbach was trying to do with it, but it felt hollow compared to the rest of the novel. In a weaker novel, it might have blended in as ordinary, but in this otherwise strong novel, it seemed slightly out of place. It didn't ruin the novel for me, but it did pull me out of the characters and action and make me ponder the editing and construction of the novel itself.
Favorite passages: Harbach beautifully articulated one of the reasons I take the time to review each book I read: "So much of one’s life was spent reading; it made sense not to do it alone." He summed up the kind of classroom I try to foster when I teach: "if one of his classmates or professors made a comment that seemed specious or incomplete, he said so. Not because he knew more than they did but because the clash of imperfect ideas was the only way for anyone, including himself, to learn and improve." I'll be putting it on my syllabus this spring. He stole my grammar-loving heart with this phrase: "Never too drunk to use whom." If I had to choose just one passage, however, it would be this one: "Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties."
The verdict: The Art of Fielding is a very good novel, and one I enjoyed immensely. It's an excellent debut, but for this reader, one storyline did not ring as true as others, and it somewhat dampened my enjoyment of this novel. Ultimately, I think of this novel fondly, and while it won't make my top ten novels of 2011, its wisdom and characters will stick with me.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 528 pages
Publication date: September 7, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle
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