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The Art of Fielding

I wrote six days ago about finishing Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. Next on my reading list were several massively long books, none of which I seemed willing to embark on. It’s not that I don’t want to read them. I just don’t want to devote weeks to them.

There’s Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, which I keep mentioning as next up. Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which got such astonishingly good reviews last year. Do I really want to read 700 or 800 pages on LBJ, or the Civil War? Though the appeal of these books will lie in their great story telling and portrayal of character, even if they cover seemingly familiar ground. And then there are the Hilary Mantel novels I keep deferring, Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, now a bestseller. Three years ago I just had to read the first one. Now it has sat in my bedroom unread for two and a half.

I’ll get to them.

Don’t forget Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, as I almost did. (What would a book be these days without a colonic sub-title? This one is no different. Its sub-title? “A Novel”. Geez, what’s wrong with publishers?) It got rave reviews on its arrival last fall. For instance, by Michiko Katutani in the daily NYT and then by Gregory Cowles a few days later in the Sunday NYT. I made a mental note to myself to read it.

In late November, the NYT named it one of the ten best books of 2011. I re-read the reviews. I downloaded the free opening section, started it, decided to read the book, added it to my list. Two months later, I was still putting it off. Something about 500+ page novels. After another month, I dropped it from my list, having decided that it was probably over-rated. It can’t be that good. And did you see the comments at Amazon? Some people flat-out hated it.

Well, last week, with so many other 500+, 600+, 700+, 800+ page books awaiting me, 510 pages didn’t look so bad. I downloaded The Art of Fielding and began. Progress was slow for three days. A hundred pages in, I caught on that there were five main characters to track. (The fifth one didn’t show up for a while.) Two hundred pages in, things weren’t looking so good for any of them and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to read 500 pages of people failing. Failure may be our ultimate shared fate, but that doesn’t mean I have to read about it. The book starts with such promise for one of the characters. I didn’t anticipate getting much pleasure from his failing, if that’s what was to be. Halfway through, the relationships between the various characters acquired sufficient complexity that simple success or failure on the ball field became less pressing. I could enjoy the characters individually and in pairs and let go of rooting for them.

As for failure, I got to see plenty of that during this past weekend’s US Open golf championship, a subject better left for another post. I’ll just say that my plan on Saturday was to watch the third round, with the final round and Father’s Day activities to fill my day Sunday. However, as Saturday’s golf became its own tale of failure, I found myself shutting the TV in favor of the book, whose last 260 pages I completed over the course of the day.

The book has its weaknesses, perhaps by design. The non-principal characters are barely developed. One of the five principals is thinly developed. At least one relationship I found unconvincing. But no matter. It’s an enchanting story.

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