25 May 2012

A Source of Stillness:
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

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The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.–Aparicio Rodriguez

If you are a smart woman looking for a wonderful summer book (now available in paperback for those who still like to hold their fiction) then here’s our pick. While this is not a light read, it is just perfect for the dog days ahead.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s remarkable novel, takes place at Westish College, “that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin.” This is the ideal backdrop for a tender coming of age story, but that is just a small part of the sweeping novel Harbach creates. But what is really so compelling and unusual is that this is actually several stories of initiation linked by one zen-like character named Owen Dunne (called “Buddha” by his friends).

Circling Owen is his roommate Henry, Henry’s mentor Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend, Pella Affenlight. To complicate matters a bit, Pella is the college president’s daughter, and the college president (Guert Affenlight) falls in love with Owen.

And should you need a touch more enticing, Westish has an unusual backstory. Inspired by a lecture Guert finds ‘tucked between two brittle magazines’  in the Westish library in 1969 authored by none other than Herman Melville, the school’s mascot becomes a whale and the athletic teams are named The Harpooners.  And, while Westish is landlocked, a statue of Herman Melville graces the campus and gazes out toward Lake Michigan. (Guert’ s Harvard dissertation on “the homosocial and the homoerotic in 19th-century American letters,” becomes an influential book titled “The Sperm-Squeezers.”)

The introduction of Melville, and Moby Dick in particular, provides a philosophical point-counterpoint between monomania and principles from The Art of Fielding (a book within the book) such as, “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to Thoughtless Being.” This in turn, ties together all the strivings of the main characters–self discovery and the ability to build relationships with one another. The reader witnesses and vicariously experiences a lot of growth in this novel.

Our reading group loved the book and could have spent hours discussing it. There are many layers of meaning, all beautifully conceived and conveyed to the reader. Let us know if you have read The Art of Fielding and what you think. And, keep in mind that this book is about baseball in the same way Moby Dick is about whaling.

 

 

written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.
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Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding”

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