When I was walking around Book Expo America on the first day this year, a publicist with Little Brown got my attention and asked if I wanted a copy of The Art of Fielding, a book she said they were heavily promoting at the show. I asked what it was about, and when she replied “Baseball,” I must have made some sort of face because she immediately added something to the effect of, “But it’s not really about baseball!”
When I responded that I actually like baseball, she laugh and told me then it was actually about baseball if I wanted it to be. Oh, marketing.
The Art of Fielding takes place at Westish College, a small school on the shores of Lake Michigan. Henry Skrimshander is the baseball team’s star shortstop, on his way to baseball stardom. But when one throw goes awry, Henry’s future is threatened by overwhelming self-doubt. The throw also upends four other lives — Owen, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate; Guert, the college president; Mike, Henry’s best friend and the team captain; and Pella, Gert’s recently-returned daughter. The Art of Fielding follows these five characters through the baseball season as the year counts down.
I loved the way author Chad Harbaugh was able to write about so many different kinds of things. The Art of Fielding is not a short book — my ARC comes in at more than 500 pages — but Harbaugh uses that length to explore so many themes and ideas… life at a small college, the life of a sports team, what it’s like to grow up and try to find a career, finding yourself, moving back home, illicit affairs, confused sexuality, natural talent versus practiced excellence, the pursuit of perfection… the list could really go on. The point is, Harbaugh hits all of these notes almost perfectly.
My one critique about the book was that I didn’t feel like the five main characters developed at the same pace. Owen, in particular, felt more like a plot point rather than a real character with ambitions and complications for much of the book. And, interestingly, Henry also felt one-dimensional for a lot of the story because so much of it focused on his fall from grace and the responses of the people around him.
After finishing the book and thinking on it for awhile, I think what the publicist said is actually true — The Art of Fielding is about baseball, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Harbaugh uses baseball as a way to explore teamwork, family, perfection, ambition, commitment, and growing up in a book that offers as much love to Herman Melville as it does to a well-played line drive. I don’t think you have to love baseball in order to enjoy this book, but I do think you need to have an appreciation for some of these themes in order for the book to hit most effectively.