P&P Reading Club: Great Expectations?

he art of fielding by chad harbachAway we go with preliminary expectations from some of our contributors before hitting the pages. Please feel free to share your own hopes, dreams, fears about the Art of Fielding in the comment section below.

Also: this goes without saying, but if you read ahead, please don’t spoil it for the group as a whole. Reading ahead is only natural, but we’ll be keeping the discussion to the prescribed pages. And remember: read through chapter 17 by Wednesday.

Ted Walker

I went to a college about the size and shape of the one featured in The Art of Fielding. I played baseball at this college. I was a catcher. The goal of the reader should not be to find those novels that emulate one’s own experience as closely as possible, but the small college catcher is not exactly literature’s most recurrent motif, so I think I’m off the hook for getting excited about this book. It’s been years, honestly, since a baseball book has stirred me to action the way that this one has. It could be the positive reviews that form a warm nest for the book in my mind like a pile of freshly laundered game jerseys.

I suppose it’s also the expectation that a baseball book will hum with contemporary life: a baseball book that matters. As much as it’s touted as the literary sport, it’s been awhile since the modern literary experience has intersected with the modern baseball experience. I am excited about this baseball book because I hope that it, and this reading club, will be a reward for those of us who hang loosely around the lettered edges of this game, hoping to witness the elusive linked stitch that binds together art and sport.

Patrick Dubuque

The Art of Fielding is a departure for me in terms of genres, being written by someone who is still alive, and I’m heading into the novel with a healthy respect if also some slight trepidation.  Even the plot description on the dust jacket reads so conspicuously modern: a series of character studies, centering around mankind’s search for meaning in an uncaring, nihilistic society.  I’m guessing that we’ll see something of Steve Sax, or at least his dreaded disease, as Henry comes of age through the novel.   But perhaps it is not this gloomy!  I should disclose that throwing off my measurements will be Brideshead Revisited, which I finished recently and which appears to have at least something in common with this novel, although hopefully not the endings.

My question, since I’m obviously in this bleak mood: whither the baseball novel?  There’s not much agreement on the best baseball novels of all-time, but the majority of the big classics date back fifty or sixty years, and even the most modern of the greats (Kinsella) are nearing thirty.  If it’s the All-American sport, why can’t it seem to serve as the foundation of the Great American Novel?  (Except in the case of The Great American Novel, of course).

Megan Wells

I try to start a new book with as few expectations as possible. That said, I can tell already that this book is going to make me uncomfortable. People doing stupid things at colleges hits close to home for a lot of us, I’d imagine, even if we turned out alright – or at least avoided a criminal record – regardless. But more importantly, these people engaging in college-age chicanery are ballplayers. Baseball fans are a perverse lot – we love our players to be human and fawn over the details parceled out by beat writers and Twitter feeds. But we get disturbed when they don’t match the black-and-white heroism between the lines. We’re forced to find a balance between personal flaws and the on-field narratives we build in our heads. I expect to both love and hate a lot of these characters, and to find myself facing a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. What about the book do you think will challenge you?

Adam Webb

Thank you for inviting me to take part in your conversation about The Art of Fielding and providing me with the opportunity this week to judge a book by its cover. (I saw Paul Bacon‘s designs in TAF’s enigmatic white brush script on blue.)

Without having cracked the spine and with every effort to not learn any more about the book than I already do (Wisconsin college baseball, Franzen blurb), my thoughts about TAF are dominated by one triviality: How much of the book will occupy itself with metaphorical “fielding”? Will this theoretical metaphor (which I fear infects every chapter of the book) ruin the whole thing for me?

Despite this concern, I have high hopes because TAF is a campus novel, a label that gets applied to some of my favorite wildly different books (Brideshead Revisisted, As She Climbed Across the Table, The Name of the World). But the book isn’t being hyped as a campus novel; it’s a baseball novel. What was the last ‘important’ baseball novel? Chabon’s Summerland?

Peter Beatty

I have no idea what to expect with this book. Well, that’s not true. I read the jacket copy and the blurbs. I can expect prose that will (insert fulsome adjectives from many many prominent writers, and some writers who I think are hacks and some I have never heard of). My natural instincts as a Northeast Ohioan are to resent anything successful or even anything that’s supposed to be nice. But I took a pill to shut down my bile generators for the duration of this book club. I honestly can’t think of a first novel that’s gotten reviews like A of F is getting–actually I’m hard pressed to think of many novels period that are ever praised to such a universal extent. In a age when people seem to relish being the first to issue forth a takedown of anything successful (I recall reading blog posts hating on Freedom’s cover art months before the book pubbed)–there’s been a surprising lack of critical pushback for The Art of Fielding. That makes me suspect it might be a book does something rare: straight-up entertains people and makes them stop complaining for a few hours/days.

That said, I’m not crazy about the cover. I think the A and F have a subliminal association with terrible Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. I like the colors and the warmth of the hand-drawn (painted?) text but in my heart I accuse this jacket design of aspiring to neoliberal Vampire-Weekend-listening corporate hipsterdom. Dammit the pill isn’t working yet.

Eric Nusbaum

I expect this book to be much less about baseball than everybody is saying it will be. There just seems to be no way a novel that gets deep into the nitty-gritty of the game could garner so much New York hype. But that isn’t to say I’m not excited. Writing about sports well in a novel is a hard thing to do. There’s too much cliche, too much nostalgia, too much explaining for a serious fan to get past. The last sporty novel I read was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I couldn’t finish it, but not because of the sports: I thought O’Neill’s cricket scenes and cricket subplot were more beautifully rendered than anything else the protagonist was involved with. I worry that the Art of Fielding will have the opposite problem: baseball will loom as a device, a background, a template for some easy symbolism. Also: I’m skeptical about the title and not totally in love with the cover.

This has been a far more negative paragraph than I was expecting it to be. I guess my question is what makes a book a baseball novel, as opposed to a regular novel? I suppose we’ll be answering together for

13 Responses to “P&P Reading Club: Great Expectations?”

  • I agree with Eric that I go into the novel not expecting it to be about baseball in the technical sense, but rather provides a comfortable framework for the overarching plot.

    I do disagree with the cover art critiques. I think the script provides a bit of nostalgia, no matter how superficial, much like baseball.

  • I’m going to read along with y’all and I am cautiously excited. My favorite modern novel is about baseball (David James Duncan’s The Brothers K) and has some pretty big cleats to fill in that regard. As a sidenote, once this book club is done, any of y’all who haven’t read that book really, really should — Ted and Eric, I feel completely confident that you guys would both love it. I feel that it strikes the perfect balance between talking about baseball and talking about everything else and have often described it as the great American novel that people just don’t realize has already been written.

    Those high standards aside, I do want and expect this book to be good, and I have a higher than average tolerance for young ambitious debut novels having worked at a bookstore where I read truckloads of advance readers of such books for many years. Some of my favorite recent books have been debuts and I sometimes think great writers (Joseph Heller, anyone?) actually lose their magic after they become more seasoned and start writing with a built in audience’s expectations in mind.

    I agree with Eric — it’s hard for me to imagine that a book that has been described as perfect by people who also profess to “hate baseball” is goint to have THAT much to do with the sport, but we will see!

  • Thanks for putting this on. Should be fun.

    I’ll second Brian K on the cover, if this is the place for book-by-cover-judgment. It works for me. Looks to me like a mashup of the cover of one of the newer(?) editions of “The Natural” and the current/old Minnesota Twins jersey script.



    Got my copy. Play ball.

  • In all honesty, I can’t say I’ve read a lot of baseball novels, maybe some cheap paperbacks I bought at a book fair that were of the serial variety, but my copy of TAOF came today and the texture of the jacket was, well, it was like when your dad comes home with a new baseball glove. In other words, I’m excited, and the anticipation of getting started–I’ve got another book to finish first–is akin to letting the leather sit with a rubber band around it overnight. I just hope I’m not too hyped, but, seriously, the book jacket is awesome.

  • Also, my love for the cover isn’t so much with the look of it but with the texture, if that makes any sense.

  • I loved and still love the novel “The Natural” but the question remains – what happened to Roy during those youthful years after the accident and before his return? I am excited about this book because it will explore similar themes and, after the first few chapters, the prose is crisp and humorous.

  • I’m ridiculously excited about reading this book. Perhaps it’s because I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a foundation in baseball other than ‘The Natural.” I read a lot of baseball books, but they’re all nonfiction.

    I don’t have a lot of expectation of this read, other than it should fill the many airplane rides I have in the coming days and weeks. But I will say I’m intrigued to see how the discussion of the book plays out here on Pitchers & Poets. Something tells me this isn’t going to be like my real life book club where the book often gets tossed aside for wine and gossip. Although if you can find a way to hand me a glass of wine whilst we’re discussing this, the conversation could get interesting.

  • I finished the book a few weeks ago. I’ve posted my thoughts about it at my personal blog (sorry for the plug), and it’s as good as everyone is saying. While many go in thinking baseball will play a huge role, it so happens that this is, more accurately, the Tenacious D of baseball books. Just as they write surprisingly good songs that happen to be funny, this a great book that happens to be about baseball.

  • Mr. Beatty — I think the Vampire Weekend comparison may be not just apt but also accurate. I could swear I had read that the band (or some members) knew the N+1 guys (Harbach is a founder of the lit mag). Now I’ve been trying to figure out all day where I gleaned that bit of trivia to no avail … so it may have all been a dream.

  • I don’t know too much about baseball. I haven’t grasped all the rules and am yet to be gripped by the sport the way I would like to be. I have watched a couple of games at stadiums and enjoyed my experience, yet I wasn’t really sucked in. Maybe it’s because I came to baseball late (when I was 28) and it wasn’t really a part of my ‘growing up’, those impressionable years when one’s world is completely taken over by sport.

    What was an integral part of my growing up, though, was cricket – in many ways baseball’s estranged sibling and a sport which has also inspired a rich literary tradition. Both these sports seem to work well as backdrops or frameworks as writers explore various other themes.

    So I’m here with no real expectations. I thought the Art of Fielding will be a good way for me to explore baseball’s literary side. I thoroughly Don DeLillo’s ‘Pafko at the Wall’ and have been meaning to read Malamud’s Natural. I also liked Netherland – though I mostly read it because of the ‘cricket’. Maybe I should revisit it and read it again.

    I hope I can contribute to these discussions, though I must warn you that most of my thoughts will be from left field – a field so far left that they play cricket on it.

  • I think most great art of the 21st century is an ode to The Colour and the Shape

  • Eric: Oh, definitely. Without question.

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