I’ve written here before that I do occasionally manage some recreational reading, though based on the series of posts centered on books I’ve assigned for class, and the relative dearth of those I’ve picked up for kicks, that assertion may be unconvincing. Nonetheless, I really really do–even if it takes me eight weeks to wend my way through a novel (which, not coincidentally, I bring to a stunning crescendo when I perhaps really ought to be focused on grading and finishing up the semester rather than tiring my eyes in recreational pursuits).
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is the latest, and I even stayed up late to finish it, an infrequent occurrence and something I’m increasingly unwilling to do as I age (to whit: the last two books I stayed up late for–though those took me into the wee hours of the night, largely on the basis of being gigantic and being authors/stories in which I’d already previously invested years–were Robert Jordan/Brian Sanderson’s A Memory of Light, and Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, one of which was released in each of the last two years).
I’m not accustomed to reviewing books of which I can be accused of spoiling the ending by revealing plot details, so I’ll be careful here. The basics: Henry Skrimshander is a high school shortstop from Lankton, SD whose encounter with a Westish College Harpooner (Herman Melville once gave a speech at the college, which has reshaped its identity around that connection) by the name of Mike Schwartz lands him on Westish’s team, and launches him into a successful D-III college baseball career. With the freshman class already filled when he’s recruited, the school’s star scholar, Owen Dunne–also a talented but disinterested ballplayer–agrees to share his room with Schwartz’s protege, all under the watchful eye of college President Guert Affenlight, a budding environmentalist whose academic career (begun, in fact, when as an undergraduate library page at Westish he uncovered a transcript of Melville’s forgotten speech at the college) contrasts sharply with that of his wayward daughter, Pella. It’s a small team at a small college in a small town, so you know they run into each other, but I’ll leave the details for the book itself. Don’t be deterred by the baseball vehicle; the book is far more devoted to its characters and relationships, filled with references to college governance and American literature, than it is a paean to sport.
Was it beautifully written, brilliantly conceived, life-changing, edifying in any special way? Not particularly, nor did I feel that pang of emptiness as I set it on the floor and snapped out the light that I sometimes do with a book just completed. But will it stay on my shelf, to be lent to anyone who’d like to borrow it, with an endorsement (whatever that’s worth)? Absolutely.
*The development of the college’s identity is itself fairly intriguing as I watch my own institution (and the previous one) discuss “rebranding” efforts and work to distinguish itself from its peers. But can we agree that unlike “Harpooners,” the “Eagles” nickname is probably not the way to distinguish an institution from others of its ilk?