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Making Theme Matter
The Art of Fielding

Spoiler Alert: This article will use some sentences from the last page of the novel. While this won’t tell you how things happen, it will reveal the final words of the novel and the characters who say them. You’ve been warned. 

I have a new book to add to my favorites list (who can pick just one?). The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Perhaps it’s the switch from the fast-paced YA I’ve been reading, or that it takes place at a fictional college almost exactly where my alma mater is (St. Norbert shout out), or that I’m just really ready for baseball season, but Hardbach’s novel feels beautiful and perfect. 

It follows five characters over several years: a gifted shortstop, his roommate, his friend and mentor, the college’s president, and his daughter. Their stories overlap, mingle, and get messy. 

I learned many new things from reading Harbach’s book. Everything from weaving in meaningful subplots to writing long, complicated sentences without losing the reader or obliterating the rules of grammar. As someone familiar with the surrounding area of Westish College, the fictional college in the novel, I am also intrigued at how detailed and seamlessly his creation fits into the real world. I admire how he meshed the fictional with the real. 

But I think the biggest lesson learned involves his masterful handling of theme. When writing a novel, an author purposefully incorporates bigger ideas with everything building toward them. Harry Potter explores the power of love, The Heart of Darkness probes man’s baser side, and Pride and Prejudice pokes fun at society. The Art of Fielding delves into love, loss, and wisdom earned. 

One of the many themes I admired is explored with this quote from the fictional namesake of the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

Henry, the shortstop in the story studies this book incessantly, striving to glean every morsel of knowledge from his hero. He admits, “There were, admittedly, many sentences and statements in the Art that Henry did not yet understand.” So even though he doesn’t understand all the nuggets, he continues to read, continues to reach for this perfection. Harbach establishes the difficulty in returning to thoughtlessness, giving it extra significance for the reader. 

At the end of the novel, Harbach returns to this idea of thoughtlessness as Henry’s mentor, Schwartz, hits a few balls to him so he can practice throwing to first base. After many failed attempts, Henry finally has success, 

He spun his hips and whipped his arm, feeling nothing, less than nothing, no sense of foreboding or anticipation, no liveliness, no weight, no itch or sentience in his fingertips, no fear, no hope...He’d made one perfect throw. Now what?

Schwartz bent down gingerly, reached into the bucket. “Just kidding,” he said. “I’ve got one more.”

Henry nodded, dropped into his crouch. The ball came off the bat.

At last, Henry achieves the stages outlined earlier in the book by Rodriguez. He successfully returns to thoughtlessness; getting into position with nothing distracting him from the ball flying off the bat. Sam Sacks in his Wall Street Journal review says it perfectly, baseball and the novel are about “The promise of spring and the wisdom of autumn.” The only way to get to autumn is to learn all the lessons of spring and summer, play all the games, battle all the inner demons, until at last, the crisp fall days reveal the truth you’ve been searching for all along.

Sources: Harbach, Chad. The Art of Fielding. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011. Print.

Sacks, Sam. “Call Me Safe, Ishmael.” online.WSJ.com, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 2011. Web. March 28, 2013.

Get more of me on Twitter @aereichert.

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