Librarians’ Best Books of 2011: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

Stephanie Chase, interim reference, adult services, and programming coordinator,
Multnomah County Library, loves Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown).

What We Said:

Succeeding on many levels, this highly enjoyable and intelligent novel offers several coming-of-age tales set against the background of an exciting and convincing baseball drama. Harbach paints a humorous and resonant portrait of a small college community while effectively portraying the Wisconsin landscape and a lake that provides an almost mystical source of solace and renewal.

What She Says:

It is inevitable that Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding will be described as a baseball book‚ it is a mistake only those who have not read it will make.Stephanieheadshot Librarians Best Books of 2011: Chad Harbachs The Art of Fielding This glorious debut novel is about baseball the way Field of Dreams or The Natural is, which is to say, not very much about the game of baseball at all. n+1 cofounder Harbach uses America’s pasttime as a backdrop for a moving, nuanced look at the bonds of friendship, the fragility of relationships, and the tension between individual desire and group responsibility.

The story takes place over three years at the small Midwestern liberal arts college of Westish, when baseball phenomenon Henry Skrimshander joins the Westish Harpooners under the tutelage of team captain Mike Schwartz. Readers follow the paths of Henry, Mike, Westish College President Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella, and Henry’s roommate and teammate Owen Dunne over a short period of time following a significant error on Henry’s part.

Harbach has an uncanny ability to plumb the depths of the connections among his characters and focus on the choices they are careening toward, the powerlessness they feel in the face of much change, and the inevitability of the results when they choose to remain silent. I know I’m in the midst of a great novel when I find myself talking aloud to the characters or closing the book because I can’t bear to witness what is coming. Goosebumps don’t hurt either, and I got them many times while reading this.

ArtofFielding Librarians Best Books of 2011: Chad Harbachs The Art of FieldingEven more impressive is that The Art of Fielding is Harbach’s fiction debut. Clocking in at over 500 pages, the story contains not a single misstep or gratuitous flourish; there is not one plot deviation or clunky language choice that hampers the forward motion of the tale and the characters. Two of the most pivotal moments happen in a flash, and Harbach spins out the aftermath in each case with precision and grace.

The Art of Fielding is perhaps the most perfect book I have read in a long time, made all the more perfect by how deeply I was entranced by the writing and the characters despite the fact I, too, initially dismissed it as a baseball book. It is literary without being inaccessible, moving without being sappy: a pure pleasure. Readers who enjoyed Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or the early works of John Irving will find much to love in Harbach’s story.

Stephanie’s Favorite Passage:

Everyone expected him to succeed, no matter what the arena, and so failure, even temporary failure, had ceased to be an option. No one would understand, not even Henry. Especially Henry. The myth that lay at the base of their friendship‚ the myth of his own infallibility‚ would be shattered.

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.

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