Inside Baseball for Outside Spectators

“I’m not a baseball fan, but I still loved this book.”

Years later, The Art of Fielding continues to show up on lists of sports fiction, as well as lists determined to identify novels that are “not really sports fiction.” It has been repeatedly recommended to me as a book about baseball that I should read, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t especially care about baseball. This year, one decade after its release, I finally read Chad Harbach’s debut (and only novel to date). I’m glad I waited. Had I read Fielding in 2011, I might have hated it (I hated so many reader favorites in 2011, I can’t help but wonder — did Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman, and Sarah Vowell really deserve one-stars? Or was I just in a foul mood? My dislike, deserved or otherwise, is still too strong to compel a record-straight-setting re-read). To be sure, Fielding is not a perfect novel, and I didn’t love it nearly as much as Michael Kindness. But at least I feel confident that I’m evaluating its flaws and strengths with something like a reasonable mind. Which is to say: I didn’t read Fielding expecting it to brighten the world. I’ve realized by now that sometimes, even books can’t do that.

That said, while an appreciation for baseball is not required, I cannot help but think that an appreciation for the sport — or for athletics in general — would elevate Fielding from a solid 2.5-star book to something closer to a 4-star.

Without such an appreciation, the novel’s weaknesses become weighty. It becomes easy, for example, to focus on the fact that Henry lacks a personality. His narrative arc is clear: he loves baseball, he loses baseball, he loses himself. But in between, he exhibits a strange paucity of emotion. He drops out of classes, loses his virginity to Pella, and cocoons himself in his failures. Throughout, his even-keeled, near-affectless personality never slips. Similarly, Pella’s motivations are never explained. I remain confused about her desires (or lack thereof) toward Henry. She sleeps with him, repeatedly. And then she stops sleeping with him, abruptly. I have no idea how Pella reached either decision, or how she felt about Henry pre-, post-, or mid-coital. At best, I can say that she exhibited something like mild curiosity about Henry — of the kind that might justify a one-night stand, but certainly not a months-long tryst.

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Wynter K Miller

Wynter K Miller

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Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California. @wynterkm