SPORTS(ish) BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Fielding

Kudos for the cover, the preppy font and the delightfully campus image.

Chad Harbach’s much lauded work The Art of Fielding had been on my radars for… I kid you not… two years, and finally with much satisfaction and a *smug face*, I managed to get round to reading it and indeed, reading it at a reasonable pace.  The book is one of ‘those’, that you just kind of get through with the pages read side growing fatter and fatter in your hand, without really feeling you’re having to force yourself to get through a tome.

The use of baseball as a main action arena allows the key event to occur; one of the five main characters, Henry, misthrows a ball that hits and injures his college roommate and fellow teammate, Owen, in the face.  The injury becomes a vehicle to work in the stories of the three other main protagonists, and as their lives interplay with one another, they all separately reach their own Damascene moments.

As mentioned, this book caused a brouhaha before it even had a publisher, with much warring going on between respective New York houses before being snapped up (rather inevitably in the world of bidding wars) by 4th Estate at HarperCollins.  Super.  Is it one of the ‘greats’ of American fiction?  For me, not really a great, but a by no means bad effort.  The writing is good; it captures the feel of a small college town that isn’t an Ivy league, and isn’t hugely well known; it’s just a ‘nice’ place; a standard quad oriented campus, with the usual small dramas of youth and coming of age that a university engenders.  The descriptive prose is measured and even, the dialogue telling and unclunky.  Clearly, Harbach is a well read young man drawing on (IMO) Fitzgerald and Melville to achieve a delicate writing style that works and does (see earlier), make this an easy read.  However, it lacks the underwritten greatness of a Gatsby or a Moby Dick to lay claim to being great literature – although Harbach’s talent could grow to such stature in the next twenty odd years (a relatively short time in the world of books!)

I’m not a player of baseball, but there is something about the game that is strikingly fresh and distinctly Yankee.

The books baseball angle seemed to be a little gratuitous to be honest; the longer baseball sequences executed in detail were a little lost on me (as a non baseball watcher), so I’m uncertain if they served as metaphors for the wider narrative or not.  But in terms of asking the question ‘Is this an important book?’ I’m happy to positively answer No.  The technique (multi person story lines) is nothing new, the sporting factor not capitalised upon, and the characters – whilst pleasant – lacked an emotional dimension to really capture my buy in.  The only painful admission here is that I think Harbach has tried to write an important book, and whilst he probably will succeed in the future, in this one he has not.

The Art of Fielding is an easy read as one is able to quietly track the characters without fanfare; aside from the main ‘misthrow’ event however, there’s very little else that happens.  That’s not a problem, but going through an academic term with quiet observation, pulls some of the Entertainment points, away from this book.  Perhaps if I did understand baseball a little more, things would be different, but for me, no, The Art of Fielding does not have the edge of seatness one could expect from a book that traces the progress of a college baseball team throughout a major varsity competition season.  The characters also don’t offer that much in the way of entertainment; although Harbach could see that as a compliment.  A book of this nature could easily have become a treatise on the internal angst of numerous individuals, but he steers clear of the authorial trap.

For someone who waited two years to read this, I’m glad I did.  I’m glad I blogged about it too.  But that legacy of TAoF remains questionable.  I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy a romcom; a ‘nice’ way to spend a few hours, but not necessarily a book that has done anything long lasting for me.  Perhaps in the baseball books category, this story will have a lasting place – but in the wider sports genre, I’d have to deny it a permanent place as a book of great reach.

The controversy in TAoF remains really, in the books evolution and route to publication. Even the college principle’s gay affair with a young student – which I think was intended to shock – was a tame and quite gently romantic event, and the rather morbid digging up of a body at one point (don’t worry I’m not plot spoiling), was also somehow appropriate and normalised rather than a jaw dropping, wincing, moment.

College Campus; as imagined in The Art of Fielding.

All in all, you can’t go wrong reading The Art of Fielding, but you most likely can’t go right either.  It’s a fine read in the same way that bubble gum can sometimes starve off hunger for twenty minutes, or flicking through a magazine can make the waiting time at the supermarket checkout bearable.  If you’re happy to quietly reflect on college days and youth past, TAoF will probably do the job for you;  but if you’re looking for a campus read as colourful and energetic as university and the host of characters usually found within it are, than perhaps opt for something else.

An all rounder here, but not a game changer.  7/10

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