The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Little, Brown • $25.99 • on sale September 7, 2011

Sunday marked the last home game for the Nashville Sounds, and I'd be pretty blue about it if I hadn't spent the week totally engrossed in Chad Harbach's debut novel about baseball, love, friendship and ambition.

You may have heard of Chad Harbach a little more than a year ago, when several news outlets ran sensational headlines like "Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000." Although I enjoy sports stories, and Harbach's presumed reference to Ted Williams' The Science of Hitting made me smile, I was a bit skeptical of a debut novel that clocked in at 500+ pages and had received so much hype. (In his editor's letter, Michael Pietsch called it one of the most "moving and accomplished" novels he's read in his career.)

Luckily, the praise was deserved.

The story takes place at a small liberal arts college near Lake Michigan, where Henry Skrimshander, a boy from a modest background, has been recruited to play shortstop for a flailing team. He was recruited after team captain Mike Schwartz saw him play during an American Legion game and recognized untamed genius. Sure enough, by Henry's junior year he is a major league prospect, and Mike has become his mentor.

Don't worry if you aren't a sports fan. Though baseball certainly provides a rich background for this story (whose heart isn't tugged by the highs and lows of an underdog team?), the real drama surrounds Henry and Mike's friendship; the delicate relationship between the college president and Henry's roommate; and Henry's fall from grace after a throw goes wrong. The story kept me up until 2 a.m. on a work night and made its way onto our "25 most anticipated books for fall" list. It's a good-old-fashioned story about growing up, disappointment and passion—and will surely be one of the most memorable books I read in 2011.

Here's a scene that takes place after Henry's errant throw, which causes a personal crisis:

He'd never been able to talk to anyone, not really. Words were a problem, the problem. Words were tainted somehow—or no, he was tainted somehow, damaged, incomplete, because he didn't know how to use words to say anything better than 'Hi' or 'I'm hungry' or 'I'm not.'

Everything that had ever happened was trapped inside of him. Every feeling he'd ever felt. Only on the field had he ever been able to express himself. Off the field there was no other way than with words, unless you were some kind of artist or musician or mime. Which he wasn't. It wasn't that he wanted to die. That wasn't it. That wasn't what not eating was about. It wasn't about perfection either.

What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn't know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn't plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them—you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren't yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the non-baseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends was made of words.

Are you interested in reading The Art of Fielding, which goes on sale in a week? What are you reading today?

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