Read this book now. You’ll regret every minutes until you do.
This is what I’ve been telling friends about “The Art of Fielding,” Chad Harbach's first novel which is being touted as one of the best novels of the year.
I don’t know about that. I do know it is one of the best baseball novels of all time. It ranks in my top five. Top three. Well… give it time to settle in but right now… yes, top one
It’s that good.
Here’s a coincidence. I received the book for Christmas from my main squeeze. I also received Ted Williams book: “The Science of Hitting.” Batting approaches have evolved since Williams wrote “The Science of Hitting” but the ideas are still useful. After all, the bats are still wood, at least in the big leagues, and the balls still have 108 stitches.
The coincidence? “The Art of Fielding” is based on a fictional book with the same title written by a great fictional shortstop, a shortstop not unlike Ozzie Smith. His text, “The Art of Fielding” is obviously meant as a placeholder for “The Science of Hitting.”
Only the snippets we get of “The Art of Fielding” read more like Zen, more like “Zen in the Art of Archery,” than Ted’s prideful attempt at physics and geometry.
What I love is “The Art of Fielding” is not set in either the major leagues or the minor leagues. It is set in the world of small college baseball and, to my ear, Harbach has perfect pitch. He not only nails the life of small college athletes – in my opinion the last true heroes of sport – he nails the life of small colleges.
The president of Westish College is perfectly familiar to anyone who has taught in a small college. So is his daughter, who we often see sitting in the back row of our classrooms blossoming out of the funk of her previous defeats in life. I think the other three main characters were enrolled in my Theory and History of the Mass Media class last semester. Or, maybe the semester before. As I read, I had no trouble putting faces to names.
Thankfully, this baseball novel doesn’t suffer from magic realism like darn near every baseball novel you've ever read. You keep waiting for the magic moment when Joe Jackson walks out of the corn or the third baseman straps two-by-fours to his broken legs, and it never arrives. When our hero has gotten so strong and so obsessive he can’t stop doing chin-ups from a tree limb, you think maybe the magic moment is here. But that’s as close as it gets. The scene shifts and presumably he finally gets tired and walks back to the dorm.
This novel forces me to rethink my ideas about why writers use baseball to tell their stories. The story here isn’t really much about greed. It isn’t much about corruption. It isn’t about the sacred territory of men and it isn’t about the trouble women create when they invade it. In fact, I'm not sure it has a hero at all, let alone a typical baseball fiction hero.
All that seems to persist from other novels is the sense of baseball as a pure thing, an art. It understands baseball better than any other novel I’ve read. Late in the story, the college president stares at a baseball on a shelf and thinks how perfect it is, how it simply invites a person to pick it up and throw it. That's as true a thing as has ever been written.
I'll be back with more later. In the meantime, read the damned book. You won’t regret it.