West Virginia Book Festival

“The Art of Fielding” and baseball season

As a sports fan, I often try to read something related to a particular sport before its season starts, to refamiliarize myself with the game and the thoughts and emotions that surround it. My pre-football season habits have already been documented on this blog, but my baseball habits are more profligate; sometimes I’ll pick up a baseball novel for a re-read, sometimes a biography or history.

So when I kept hearing last year about this baseball-themed novel, “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, I filed it away as something to read when spring rolled around. I didn’t quite get it finished by Opening Day (although the local team, the West Virginia Power, opens up at home tonight, so I’m guess I’m still good on at least one count). But I’m done with it now, and it’s a terrific book. Did it satisfy my baseball jones? That’s another story.

Much of “The Art of Fielding” revolves around Henry Skrimshander, a high school shortstop who ends up playing baseball for tiny Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan. Through a combination of hard work and natural gifts, Henry’s a natural on the baseball field — until one day, he isn’t. His troubles affect his teammates, the president of the college and those around them.

“The Art of Fielding” is the debut novel from Harbach, one of the founders of the literary magazine n+1, which might cause some readers (including this one) to approach it a little warily. Not to fear, though; as Gregory Cowles wrote in his review in The New York Times, “Measured against other big, ambitious debuts by striving young writers … ‘The Art of Fielding’ is surprisingly old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved.” Indeed, it’s a well told narrative that doesn’t go anywhere too fast, and counts as much on its characters and settings as anything that happens in the plot. Its slowness, in fact, reminded this reader of a baseball game.

But you don’t have to like baseball — or even, really, to know baseball — to like “The Art of Fielding.” A few non-baseball fans told me this, and I read it several times elsewhere. (The Guardian of London even encouraged its readers to try the book, even though most of them would know as much about baseball as most of us know about cricket.)

And this, I think, is why I ultimately found “The Art of Fielding” less than completely satisfying. It’s a literary novel that just happens to have a few baseball players at its center. I guess I just wanted more baseball than I got — which is on me, not Chad Harbach and his very good book.