THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach: Zen, College and Baseball

The Art of Fielding


Art_of_Fielding_CoverBy Chad Harbach
Format: Audiobook
Narrated by: Holter Graham
Length: 16 hrs
Unabridged Audiobook
ISBN-13: 9781611132106
On Sale Date: 12/06/2011
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Imprint: Little, Brown & Company
Also available in Print and E-book 544 pages

Library download: No remuneration was exchanged and all opinion presented herein is my own except as needed.

At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment–to oneself and to others.

My Take Oblong


I really enjoyed this well-written and thoughtful book, but as I sat down t write about it I was having a hard time focusing on what it was about.  In an interview Chad Harbach tells Joshua Lars Weill of GQ:

Well, there are lots of things in the book besides baseball, but the baseball aspect was the first thing that occurred to me. At the center of the book is a shortstop who attends this kind of dilapidated liberal arts school that doesn’t have a very strong athletic program, but over the course of his time there he’s become this incredibly good shortstop and player. As the book opens, he’s on the verge of getting drafted and making a bunch of money. He’s on the verge of really realizing his dreams. But just as all this good stuff is about to happen to him he develops what baseball folks have come to know as ‘Steve Blass Disease.’*


There’s more to it than a story about struggling to learn what you want and the why, when and how of that.  It mixes Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK and a sort of  fictional THE ART OF WAR,  a series of meditations and wisdom on playing baseball,  by a retired fictional shortstop, neither of which I have read.  Melville is the great influence on the oldest character, the college president.  The younger characters range from a first year student, the shortstop prodigy Skrimshander, and one who must be a sophomore, Mike Schwartz, Skrimshander’s pinch hitting gay roommate, and the president’s prodigal daughter, Pella. The older characters of consequence are the college president Gwert Affenlight and the Greek dining hall chef whose talents are wasted on a dining hall.

Obviously,  Scrimshander is a word derived from whaling: one who creates scrimshaw – carving on baleen or ivory.  And Schwartz seems like a Melville-type character with a sad story and one chance at being great, and not wanting to do the thing at which he excels.  Much of the story has a Melvillean context. There’s a good article about it here:

But, I don’t write scholarly, literary criticism – the once cited above is very serious and looks well done to me.   I tell you if and why I like a book and what I get from it.
The article I cite above gave me this idea that:

The Melvillean context is both overt and covert, operating as plot element, allusion, and deep thematic dialogue.  Melville’s work is the atmosphere of the book, the water in which its characters swim.

At the same time, I recognize that this particular piece of lit fic has all kinds of depth that will probably keep me thinking a long time. In fact there are scholarly pieces all over the internet about this book and its author. I can’t say it was enjoyable to listen to this audiobook description of a downward slope and the ultimate misery of life, the breaking of dreams, the unfairness of it all. But, narrator did an excellent job voicing the characters perfectly, with just the right resonance for Schwartz, hesitancy for Henry and softness for Owen.
It’s not a fun read, but it is a thought-provoking one and I did like it.

Henry’s ball playing trauma holds him back; Pella’s past with her father and husband threatens to keep her from moving forward but she does so bravely and with little to show for her four years away. Mike is stuck in his morass of debt, with his noble intentions and military hero stature making him, as Pella says, self-sabotaging.

The only people who seem to move forward are Gwert (named after Melville’s cousin) and Owen. Owen’s emotional detachment, his solid fluidity, holds him above the fray, but this leaves Gwert unprotected and vulnerable.

I kept waiting for Henry to somehow turn his decline around, but he and the other characters get caught up in a ship wreck, a whirlpool, floundering and unable to save themselves from their pasts.  You know something has to happen to pull them up from the bottom of the sea that is the story.  The characters are so deeply sunk: in debt, rudderless, depressed, that it takes more than on event to stop them from drowning, but even then, they are like sailors that have saved themselves only to be cast ashore on a desert island. It takes another set of events to keep them from dying there.  Of course, baseball also figures into the story in a big way, and the Sun Tzu-ian text, eponymously named THE ART OF FIELDING, provides a kind of calm wisdom that ultimately may not be able to provide life lessons in the way it provided baseball lessons.

If you are looking for something deep and yet readable, then I highly recommend THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach.


*”A condition referred to as “Steve Blass disease” has become a part of baseball lexicon. The “diagnosis” is applied to talented players who inexplicably and permanently seem to lose their ability to throw a baseball accurately.”  For more about “Steve Blass disease:”


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