Chad Harbach (on art and beauty and sport)

I just finished The Art of Fielding, a 2011 novel by Chad Harbach that centres on baseball but ranges widely (sometimes wildly) from Herman Melville to environmental activism to collegiate sexual mores to the nature of the life well-lived. I liked best its many meditations on the meaning of sport, and the pursuit of greatness in it. Here is one passage:

“The making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.

“For Schwartz, this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition…, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

“Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day,how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer — you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability…”

Chad Harbach is a new writer to me. He is the co-founder a literary and cultural magazine called n+1, also new to me. He writes about baseball like Henry the Shortstop, his protagonist, fields ground balls: with grace, the occasional wow, and deep understanding.

He came into my line of sight rather pathetically: a student in my writing class in a Chinese university, hectored by me to find something fun/interesting/pleasurable to read in English rather than the stiff, classical and too damnedly difficult texts they typically have chosen for them, showed up with The Art of Fielding. She’d paid 77 yuan for the paperback, about 13 bucks, which was in a Chinese bookstore solely because it was a New York Times notable book. Her choice was a sad, bitter and completely unintentional joke on me and my sometimes absurd hopes for students, and nobody got the joke but me: not only is it a fine and rather literary novel, it’s about baseball. Ms. An hadn’t the faintest clue what the book was about, and hadn’t even bothered trying to begin it. I released her from this painful (or patently fake) fantasy of fiction reading, then borrowed the book, and have so far been unsuccessful in convincing her to allow me to pay her for it. (It’s great. It’s so laughably/pitiably far beyond the grasp of nearly any Chinese student, though not apparently a financial stretch for this one.)


It’s Lonely at the Top…

…of this page, where a pale head on fuschia shoulders floats in a cold cerulean sea… (It’s just up there, top right corner — the disembodied Spirit of Semi-Constant Scribble. A couple of my nieces have found this site too funny to read, because of that ghostly noggin hovering there. But I swear the shirt was red when the photo was taken.) Even Writing Heads Get the Blues. But in contrast to the rude (and rhyming) epithet so common these days, I have only one thing to say to all of you out there in CyberLand: you can just WRITE me! A couple of you have noted the lack of ready-made comment space on, but you shouldn’t let that discourage you. At the bottom of that eerily glowing yellow box at left is a Write Me! (don’t bite me) button that gets you to my email address, and the rest is as easy as falling off your front porch.

For one thing, I’m a bit of a grammar-and-spelling freak and am occasionally horrified to see that something sub- or semi-literate has been set free to further corrupt the corridors of cyberspace, placing yet more of the misery of psoriasis on the unsightly shoulders of the information highway, sullying the glistening filaments of the world-wide Web. (Or you may object to overheated metaphors.) I’d be grateful for your help in eliminating errors of grammar or fact, but would welcome even more your reflections, commentary, or a simple “hello from Guadeloupe (Vancouver, Detroit, southern Caledonia…)”. ‘Sall good, as those spunky youngsters (spongy yunksters?) love to say.

 No hiding, now. My little stat machine tells me that there are a few of you out there now, and while I’ve been known to talk to myself, it’d be nice to know that there’s somebody out there who can read. And who does.

Just Say NO to Reading

Readers are Leaders was one of the main mantras of my teaching career, and no doubt it also soothed me regarding the undeniable Rightness of my constant hunger for text. But one of my annoying little assignments along The Artist’s Way this week has been reading deprivation. In a life like mine, that’s not such a small thing, actually, and though it has been easy to slip into that mindless groping for typeface, I’ve been surprised by how much I like it. It’s a relief. It makes me realize (again) that reading is not some lazy-boy dodge for me but a ravenous, indiscriminate and chronically unsatisfiable quest. I highly recommend it to the reading-addicted.

“Readers are leaders!” I harangued my classes, but “put the book down and go DO something!” has been a regular jab at my hyper-literate sons and even, now, their book-snaky Dad. “They say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading!” That has long been one of my favourite quotes (I forget who wrote it), but it’s not quite so funny anymore. It’s been good to find new ways to live in the evening, and it wasn’t all Adventures in More Timely Housework (though I even enjoyed some of those). I finally repaired those loveseat cushions. You might say it was only packing tape, but it was Industrial Design to me!