The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach which I just finished reading will probably end my surprising baseball binge for a while. This is a very dense book in that summarizing what happens in the book would not do it justice and would be quite involved. It is also true that a bare summary of this story will not offer a true picture of the experience of reading the book. The Art of Fielding takes place in the world of college baseball. Baseball provides the framework for the story and is the field on which the characters meet, but this story is not about baseball. Baseball is an extended (500 page) metaphor for the things the author wants to say about life. The book is worth the investment of time.
We have great literary characters and we do become attached to them – Henry Skrimshander, Mike “Schwartzie” Schwartz, Owen Dunne, Guert Affenlight, and Pella Affenlight. It all begins with a book written by Aparicio Rodriguez (fictional) who played for the St. Louis Cardinals for 18 seasons. He was a record-making short stop and he wrote The Art of Fielding (a fictionalized nonfiction book about how to be a great short stop). Henry Skrimshander, not the most well-adjusted child, or the strongest, found the focus for his young life in this book. And he did become an excellent short stop, soon to be discovered by Mike Schwartz, who recruits him for Westish College. The problem is that playing short stop has been such a ruling passion in Henry’s life that he has no life except for perfecting his performance at short stop. Mike Schwartz, who leaves Henry to fend for his very incapable self until baseball season starts, then inserts himself into Henry’s life as his trainer, gives Henry, finally, a person to focus on beyond his hero Aparicio. Life gets messy after this and much more interesting. Arrested development is not so easy to overcome.
This book reminds me of books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where we immerse ourselves in a technical world that may never have interested us before. The author helps us focus on the subject in a new way and suddenly we find that world fascinating and, for the moment, totally comprehensible. We also see, almost immediately, that the author is talking about life and the lessons we learn from life and we see that these two subject levels (the technical and the organic) have a metaphorical relationship to each other. In this case we do learn a lot about playing short stop, but that is not the point of the novel. If you don’t feel like figuring out metaphors this is still a great story. I’ll remember it and that is my test that a good book must pass.