I’m not that into sports. The only reason I went to football games in high school was because it was the social hub of a Friday night. And while I appreciate the occasional baseball or football game, I can’t remember the last time I went to one.
So it defies logic that I would pick up a book centered entirely around baseball: The Art of FIelding by Chad Harbach.
But sometimes the best books are the least expected. This one came to me at an important time in my life; it was in the back of my mind after seeing its recommendation by John Green, whose opinion I highly value when it comes to books. I wasn’t planning on reading it — sports! Why would I want to read a book about baseball? But then I spotted its timeless blue-and-white cover in a bookstore last summer and I thought, what the heck.
I was in a profoundly lonely point of my life at the time, somewhere I never want to go again if I can help it. While Fielding did not solve this loneliness, it instead acted as a balm that distracted me and comforted me for all of its beautiful 605 pages. It was able to do so because the characters in its pages practically make the book into a living, breathing thing. Its characters and their stories are so real that for the whole length of the book I felt as though I had a part in their life. I felt there was no way that their world was not real.
The story follows shortstop Henry Skrimshander as he goes to college to play with the Harpooners, a mediocre baseball team at the small liberal arts Westish College. Henry is a prodigy, destined to join the big leagues, but then an accident begins a descending spiral of self-doubt which effects everyone around him. The story follows other characters as well; Goodreads puts it best: “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’ 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.”
All of these characters are intensely flawed which is what makes them incredibly real and endearing. They’re not perfect, they make mistakes, but they keep trying and never give up. I don’t know what it is about Harbach’s writing; often a fiction novel like this would not appeal to me. But there’s no denying that its pages simply sparkle.
Have you ever had a “right book right time” happy accident? What about other sports books? I’m hankering to read The Brothers K, another book centering around baseball that’s about a thousand pages.